by Douglas Hackney
I ducked to avoid the low hanging-limb of what looked like bamboo to my untrained eye. The stream was deep, but the steep banks restricted my passage to the creek bed. Weaving through the fast flowing water brought back a brief flash of my first riding days on mini bikes along Iowa’s Raccoon River. The Raccoon, however, was never this clear. I rode through another tunnel of low hanging brush and made a brief run before climbing a tumbling waterfall. I was deep in the midsection of “Jim’s Jungle”, a long run up a stream bed punctuated with fallen trees, waterfalls, sand bars, and lots of fun. It was November 17th, and I was on the opening dirt section of the 1996 Edition of the Malcolm Smith Motorsports (MSM) 4th Annual Dual Sport Ride.
My riding partner, Bob Mueller, and I had planned an early start from MSM in Riverside, CA, but my forgetfulness set us back. I managed to make a half dozen trips from the van to the dealership to cut the locks off my gear bag (I’d left the keys in the hotel room), get water, get roll chart tape, etc. Then, I forgot my fanny pack with all my contact lens emergency materials and my camera requiring a return loop from about two miles out.
Finally underway at about 7:30am, we worked our way through the brightening city streets to the nearby foothills of the San BernardinoNational Forest. Riverside is on the Southeastern edge of the Los Angeles basin, so we didn’t have to go far to get to “Jim’s Jungle” and get our feet wet…very literally. Once through the water, we continued down some additional asphalt to our next dirt section. This set the pattern for the day: an excellent off road section to minimal asphalt to the next California trail or fire road.
California is blessed with 102 OHV (Off Highway Vehicle) areas open to any vehicle sporting a state “green” sticker (the purchase of which funds the OHV program), but this dual sport ride would consist strictly of local dirt and gravel roads, county, state and national forest fire roads, and single track “goat” trails clinging to the sides of very large mountains. To the Midwestern eye, the cornucopia of potential off road riding in California is somewhat disorienting and takes a few visits to get used to.
With so much “outback” to explore, it is no wonder that there are more California based off road riding events annually than anywhere else in the country. A friend in the motorcycle industry moved to the coast in 1990, and I have been visiting regularly ever since to ride the twisty mountain roads and the spectacular Pacific Coast Highway and to taste the overwhelming beauty and challenge of off road California style.
I was lucky enough to be on my own bike, a `92 Suzuki DR350. We were on a fire road that was perfect for fantasies of bar-to-bar action with Springsteen and Carr. It was as if God had personally spent months finding the exact combination of traction, banking and twisties for unlimited fun. Just as we were ready to stop and strap steel plates to our boots, we jumped off into another single track trail and our day’s first major obstacle.
Halfway up a serious hill we spied a bike spewing a rooster tail of silt and rock peppering the half dozen riders perched along the face of the mountain below. It provided a frustrating tableau to the two dozen or so riders arrayed at the bottom of the slope. We joined the queue and quickly got a close up view of the action. The trail had deteriorated into a bed of silt about 18″ deep for about 40 feet. Although we saw a couple good riders make it through without dismounting, everyone else had to get off and walk their mounts through the obstacle. The current hold-up had stalled his bike and was trying to kick start it from the right side of the bike. Holding the bike with the left foot and kicking with the right was not an option, as the only thing to the left of the bike was a valley a long, long way down.
Some helpful riders from the contingent waiting impatiently in line finally rescued him. Once the trail was clear, we made our way through. A fellow rider assisted me with “push” services through the silt. Quite a task on an 18″ trail.
The trail rewarded our efforts. It went on along ridgelines and twisty climbs up and down the mountain range. After running up on a batch of riders circling a dead-end point, we realized we’d missed a turn a short way back. That turn, innocently labeled “Down Canyon Trail,” led us into a bleak landscape of canyons burned out by recent wildfires in the area. It was a landscape consisting entirely of monochrome shades of ash, gray and black. As we descended the twisting narrow trail, it was easy to imagine we were descending into the gates of hell itself. The smell of burnt creosote filled our nostrils as we tip-toed through the boulders and ducked under the trunks of small fallen trees. At that point, it was hard to understand that some species of the local vegetation required this devastation to reproduce. Without the searing heat of the fire, the seeds could not pop open to release the next generation. Later on, we would see small buds popping out around the base of some bushes, and clumps of grass growing in spots. This canyon, however, was as bleak and desolate a place as I’d ever been, and I was glad to concentrate on the steep downhill trail instead of the Dante-esque surroundings.
Eventually, the trail led us out to an unburned valley, and we were off to more scenic trails, fire roads and short asphalt hops. A particularly enjoyable set of fire roads led us to the lunch stop perched midway up a mountain in a burned out canyon. The collection of white vans and support trucks plopped in the middle of burned-out scrub, blackened boulders, and black and gray soil looked like a NASA resupply mission on the dark side of the moon, but the prospect of hot food enticed us quickly into camp.
We fortified ourselves on Bar-B-Que beef, raw veggies, chips and cookies. After some quick socializing (our riding got progressively faster with each telling), meeting old and new friends, and a quick check of the bikes, we were ready to face the challenges of the afternoon.
It didn’t take long for the challenges to arrive. We came across a very interesting entry on the roll chart: Alessandra Trail, “A” RIDERS ONLY, VERY ROUGH. Now, this route was laid out by Malcolm himself, and Malcolm has a reputation as a demigod of dirt, so these phrases were not to be taken lightly. Of course, we plunged onward. I traveled much too far, from much too much cold, to bail out on the B route. The trail lived up to its billing. It was the most challenging combination of steep, narrow, technical (this is a code word for ROCK on roll charts) and switchback trail sections I had ever ridden. The switchbacks, in particular, were a revelation, as you could fit them into the average corporate drone’s office cube with room to spare. The only choice was to ride around the edge, nearly horizontal to the ground, like the “barrel” racers in the fairs of days gone by. “He who hesitates is doomed” were the watchwords for the entire section.
A steady pace carried us out the top to join the other riders celebrating their passage at the fire road at the top. We took a few minutes to feel like heroes, but our revelry was interrupted by the sound of a couple of bikes tearing up the trail. By then we’d become accustomed to the sound of slow revs and slipping clutches up the last section of tight, nearly vertical rock just below us, but these guys were flying. Out of the trailhead emerged Malcolm and Mike Webb of Suzuki laughing and gassing it up. It can be frustrating to ride with or to watch the really good guys, for they make it seem so effortless. The good riders work a lot less than the ones lower in the food chain. These guys didn’t look as if they’d broken a sweat all day.
We joined them on the route down the fire road to the next section&emdash;a trail that meandered along a ridge line and offered spectacular views of the surrounding peaks. There were very few entries on the roll chart in this section, and I could see we were coming up on pavement in just a mile or so. If I looked down (I mean way down), I could see a paved road faaaaar below in the valley. It looked about the size of a piece of spaghetti dropped on the kitchen floor. As I got closer and closer to the indicated mileage, I started to recall the local riders’ comments about a “really gnarly” downhill section somewhere in the ride. At exactly one mile from the pavement indicated on the roll chart, I found the downhill.
It was one mile of nearly vertical, very technical trail. With a nice selection of fist-, softball-, basketball- and boulder-sized rocks, loose gravel, and a little dirt, it was an excellent test of balanced braking, the front knobby and the skid plate that played a syncopated, staccato rhythm all the way down. I had considered the Allesandra Trail to be my ultimate riding triumph up to that point, but the Hixon Downhill joined it in my personal hall of fame.
After a brief water break at the bottom, we jetted off for the blast back to the shop. It was almost all pavement, except for the six-mile stretch labeled “Up Wash” on the roll chart. In California, a wash can mean anything from hardpan scattered with small rock to deep, Arabian style sand. This was decidedly the latter. The sands of the Deep River Falls, WI riding area are not even close to this seemingly bottomless sandbox. As always, weight to the rear and high speed were the only antidote, so we slid back and gassed it. We thought we were doing pretty well, too, until a group of six riders blew past at warp 10 and sandblasted us. Chagrined, we followed them out of the wash and back onto the pavement.
A quick trip down the two lanes and freeways brought us back into Riverside and the friendly confine of Malcolm Smith Motorsports. Our faces were filled with dust, sweat and ear to ear grins after enjoying another day of fun and challenge in the mountains of California.