It's a long desert road, blistering, asphalt-cooking heat, and a motorcycle. The ultimate feeling of freedom and adventure. You just ride, wherever you feel like riding, until you don’t feel like riding anymore. It’s the dream of a lot of people, including me. And I actually got to do just that.
I toured California on a motorcycle for three glorious weeks in which I got about 3000 miles done. But there’s a twist. It wasn’t the big Harley cruiser you might imagine or the BMW GS adventure bike you’d probably recommend for this kind of thing. It was a tiny little Yamaha Zuma 125. Now, you probably have questions such as: “why in the world would you do that??” or “Do you always use the wrong tool like a toothbrush to wash your driveway?” So let me answer these questions in this story about my California road trip.
There is something you should probably know while reading this. In many ways I am an Outsider to this American world of motorcycling. First there is the Fact that I’m not American I come from a small, picturesque village of 700 people in the Swiss Alps. Since the surface Area of Switzerland is about ten times smaller than California’s, I wasn’t used to the huge distances and enormous areas I came across at all. Also America is just a foreign country, meaning different culture, people and of course laws. But I’m also an outsider in a different way. In truth, and to be honest this takes some balls to write in a motorcycle magazine, the only motorcycle I have ever ridden before this was also a scooter. So you should take this article with a grain of salt, since it is written by someone who almost certainly has less motorcycling experience than yourself. This is for anyone and everyone who has even the faintest interest and connection to motorcycles.
So how did I get here? How did I ride a scooter through 126 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley and up to 9000 feet in Mammoth? In this first part I’d like to summarize the journey, which in my opinion was pretty epic. I’m a landscape Photographer, meaning I’m always on the lookout for new locations and sceneries to capture.
California is an obvious choice there.
Rarely have I seen a place with natural beauty as diverse and as densely packed as in the golden state. But how do I get around? As I said California is gigantic for the standards of someone from Switzerland, there is also next to no public transport and rental fees for vehicles would absolutely obliterate my budget, especially since I’m only 21 years old. So I turned to craigslist for help. I wrote about 10 people who wanted to sell their scooter, suggesting that I would rent it for a few hundred dollars so that they could still sell it and in the end maybe make more money.
The only person that wrote back was Ari.
We exchanged emails and I found this Ari to be very supporting and enthusiastic for what I had planned. So the getting around-problem was covered and the day of my flight arrived soon. At first I spent four fascinating days of my trip in LA in which I noticed what a pain in the behind it was to get around this city inhabited by about half as many people as my entire country. I met up with Ari at his House in LA, still having no idea that this guy was Ari Henning of Motorcyclists Magazine’s “on two wheels” and thus basically internet famous.
We talked about the bike filled garage and my upcoming adventure. One sentence in particular stuck with me. Ari told me with a smile: “well, I think you’re a little bit crazy for doing this but I still think it’s awesome.” And so, off I went. Into the traffic chaos of Los Angeles. I wanted to get out of the city as quickly as possible. Since I only packed a mat and a sleeping bag, my ability to sleep relied on me finding a piece of nature somewhere away from any houses.
After about 4 hours of riding I finally reached the Chino hills State park, in which I spent my first night outside on a hilltop. The next day I woke up early since I was woken up by the sun shining in my Face. Not having anything above your head is a really good alarm clock. Also I found, when you’re always told to watch out for snakes, bears, coyotes, scorpions and many more things you tend to have interest in spending as little time sleeping on the ground as possible.
So that morning I continued riding.
Having gotten used to the scooter somewhat I was enthusiastic and motivated to get as many miles done in the arguably bearable temperatures of the morning. I arrived in Joshua Tree at about noon. This led me to take a break to wait for the mid-day heat to dissipate a bit. I fell asleep in this little café next to the Joshua Tree national park visitor-center. So at about two pm I got sick of waiting around and headed into the park. It was on that freshly paved, curvy, beautiful road leading through the magnificent rock formations of the park that I realized how well this scooter was working for me.
My heavy backpack rested on the seat, it had enough power to get me around and I don’t need to explain this in a motorcycle magazine: leaning to turn is just fun, no matter what. I spent the entire afternoon and evening capturing the landscape as best as I could. For me the park is just a landscape-photography playground. The Milky Way pictures I took that night are some of my favorite images of the entire trip. The temperatures dropped to a perfect 70 degrees at night so I slept well. Which was good because a full day of riding expected me the next day.
I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was gonna go to death valley at all for pretty obvious reasons. But after riding the 150 miles to ridgecrest, almost entirely devoid of turns , I thought “this isn’t that bad!” Yes it did indeed feel like being blasted with a hot air gun constantly but the beautiful desert landscape and the previously mentioned feeling of freedom easily made up for that. Every so often I crossed someone in a perfectly equipped adventure vehicle and enjoyed the borderline disturbed look on the sweaty faces when they saw some guy riding a city scooter who was giving them a friendly wave. I got the same expression when I rode into the campground, in which I would spend the next night.
Temperatures never went below 90 and when I pulled up to my spot I saw about six coyotes, scattering in the lights of the scooter. Me, coming from a country where the only dangerous animal we have is literally just one bear, did not know whether the coyotes were dangerous and slept with my trusty Swiss army knife in my hand. The next morning my photographic thirst was almost as big as my actual thirst. I wanted to get to the dunes. The only problem was that they are more than ten miles away from any road on my map. According to the campground staff though, there was a little dirt road.
They told me “yeah there’s a way but you really need a four by four. What do you drive?” they then laughed at my answer and informed me that someone died on that road a week ago so I better be careful. But being the adventure loving, borderline stupid photographer that I am I just couldn’t leave it alone. I thoroughly tested the off-road ability of that city scooter that day, riding about 15 miles on unpaved terrain. Almost getting lost on the following hike to the Dunes added to the adventurous feeling.
“Ari must never know about this” is what I told myself when I got back. I spent the rest of the day riding to lone pine the foot of the Sierra Mountains. On the way I experienced the only 5 minutes of rain of the whole trip, met some friendly Australians who got their car stuck and unknowingly had my phone fall out of the phone holder, only finding it again on the side of the road when I rode 3 miles back. Lone Pine was the first place I slept in a bed again in 4 nights.
I woke up to a valley filled with thick smoke, which meant that I was stuck in lone pine for the time being. Upon asking what one can do in this area, I found out that lone pine is the gate to the highest mountain in the continental United States and met a lot of people who prepared for months to hike this Mount Whitney. So, of course I decided to do the same the next day. I spent the night in the campground of Whitney-portal on 8000 feet, to which the scooter struggled to get to. I was unaware how consequential this was going to be at the time.
I woke up to my scooter being absolutely messed up, laying on the ground, the seat torn apart, all kinds of things broken off and scratched up beyond recognition. It was at that moment that I realized that I shouldn’t have left that candy wrapper under the seat. Because the edges of the pieces of foam, which were spread around the parking lot, were clearly shaped like bear claws. The huge amount of adrenaline all this caused, meant that I just ran the first couple of miles of the hike. I got to the summit within five hours and got back down in another five. It’s a beautiful and exhausting hike. For me though it was tainted by the thought of my violated scooter waiting for me when I get back. So when I stepped off the trail I limped to the Zuma, feeling the 22 miles and six thousand feet of altitude, and started fixing the scooter.
At no time before that have I felt more connected to the inventor of the saying “if you can’t fix it with duct tape, you’re not using enough duct tape”. Discovering that my little adventure scooter it still runs just fine, I was ecstatic. The next morning I woke up to a smokeless valley, so I decided to try and get as far north as possible. Only to be abruptly halted by an empty scooter battery. Tired as I was the night before, I left the ignition on throughout the night.
In situations like these I was shown the best side of America, the people. The first person that drove by stopped and spent over half an hour helping me jump-start the scooter, even going to a friend to get the jumper cables. Not least to charge the battery, I rode further north to mammoth lakes. Again the scooter really noticed the altitude, accelerating up to about thirty mph when going uphill. It was in Mammoth lakes, at Horseshoe Lake to be exact, where I met Eva. I was limping back to my scooter after an evening swim in the lake, as a friendly middle aged lady approached me asking: “where did you ride that thing from?”
After about ten minutes of the ensuing conversation she wanted to know where I planned on spending the night and upon hearing that I was going to sleep outside she generously offered me to stay at her cabin. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. So the next three days I spent riding the scooter around and photographing the beautiful mountains and lakes surrounding the town, using Eva’s home as a base. In exchange I made breakfast every morning and helped her around the house. I rode the scooter well over 9000 feet and, other than a little decrease in performance, didn’t have any problems. And after sitting on it a bit, my makeshift duct tape seat proved to be just as if not more comfortable than the original one. It felt like the scooter seat version of that worn out leather chair at grandma’s that you love. This proved especially nice on the next two days that I almost exclusively spent sitting on that seat.
I rode the beautiful road to Lake Tahoe and from there to San Francisco. To add to the feeling of immersion into the subject “wildfire”, the great majority of these two days on the scooter was spent in a very smoky and for a few hours previously burnt environment. If you own a big cruiser or a touring sport bike this may be hard to believe, but riding this 125 cc wonder through some - I believe they are called – twisties was an absolute blast. Sure, I had to stop every so often to wave the cars, bikes and generally normal people by, but that just adds to your feeling of accomplishment and makes you feel like you really earned riding down the mountain on the other side with the throttle fully opened.
I didn’t have to go around Lake Tahoe but I did because of how much fun I was having. Never the less these two days of riding did wear me out. So riding over the golden gate bridge was so satisfying that I couldn’t keep myself from screaming at the top of my lungs “I made it, baby”. I screamed it through my shivering teeth though because San Francisco was absolutely ridiculously freezing. Mark Twain must have been riding a scooter around when he said: “the coldest winter I ever had was summer in San Francisco”. So the next night I spent was the coldest one of the Trip, despite the fact that I spent one above 8000 feet.
But I was in a big city now and the next morning, after discovering a parking ticket on the scooter, it really showed how the zuma was built for this kind of environment. Just cruising around and enjoying the ultimate mobility was an awesome way to experience San Francisco. The next two nights I spent in a beautiful apartment of a couple who very generously invited me. I met her over eight years ago, playing catch in a hotel pool, when I was in the states for the first time. She contacted me on Instagram which then spared me the hard choice of an expensive hotel or a cold night in a campground. After a few days in this cold city I made my way north to cross another item from my bucket list, the redwoods.
The spectacular Muir woods was my go-to site, though Mount Whitney injury kept me from hiking around a lot. Instead I went to a event that Ari recommended for me. It was a motorcycle race on Sonoma Raceway. At first I was intimidated by the idea since I had no idea about this race culture, didn’t even know how to ride a manual bike and was riding a scooter around that looked like it did about two thousand miles in the last two weeks (which it did). But I was glad I decided to go.
Parking the Zuma next to all the beefed up sport bikes in the parking lot was funny in itself. But the highlight of the afternoon was that Ari arranged a guided tour through a Yamaha Trailer. Everybody I met was fascinated by my story and just as I was leaving a motorcycle journalist approached me and wanted to interview me for an article. I even got to stay at his place for the night. The cold temperatures of the San Francisco Area started to be quite annoying on a scooter so I spent the next two days riding south on the infamous Highway 1 on the Coast, only stopping to sleep in Caramel Hills and continuing down to Santa Maria.
This meant that I did drive through the Big Sur national park. Ari told me about this stretch and I have to say that, even on this scooter, it was as fun and as scenic as I imagined. In fact it was so beautiful, that I had to stay for two nights just so I could ride through it again and capture it in the sunset. After this I longed for the warmer temperatures of the more southern coastal parts of California. The thing is that the lovely Eva that I met in Mammoth actually lived in Malibu for the biggest part of the year. So I spent the last few days of my adventure with her Family which basically adopted me as their third son.
I don’t think this is news for anyone but Malibu is a wonderful place to relax after a strenuous trip, especially if you get to do it for free. I got to experience everything form the beautiful and fittingly named Zuma Beach to the famous Santa Monica nightlife. And believe it or not but after three weeks of sleeping on the ground, eating mostly canned food and spending less than five-hundred dollars, I spent the last day by the side of a private pool in the hills of Malibu, enjoying a beer just because I met the right people. All of this generosity and kindheartedness made a caused a few tears to roll down my face when I rode the scooter from Malibu back to LA. Ari laughed when I brought him back his beat up scooter and shouted enthusiastically “you survived!” And that, I think quite fittingly, concluded my California Adventure.
In the end I am very glad how everything worked out. I’m glad that a bear violently attacked my scooter and I’m glad that it was 126 degrees in Death Valley, because now, these are all stories I get to have and tell. Ironically it would have been less adventurous if I had an actual adventure bike and all of the other equipment one would be recommended to use.
When you have problems on the road you have to fix on the go, when you have ups and downs and when somethings just don’t go according to plan it turns a vacation into an experience worth remembering. I guess the moral of the story must be “if you don’t have the right tool for the job you must be it, yourself”.