Dirt biking

I had my first dirt biking experience today, courtesy of Kevin Anderson at Dirtbike Camp in Orland, California, USA. Here’s a shot of me suited and booted.

Callum on a dirtbike

Getting into the gear is no mean feat. You start with the shin pads, which cover from the shin to just above the knee. They go on over your socks. Then come the riding pants which are designed to fit the sitting / standing position on a bike. Then over the pants and shin pads come the boots. Mammoth boots that look like something out of a science fiction movie. They have snazzy plastic clip over buckles and a velcro top section. They feel almost solid once your foot is locked inside.

Put on the jersey. Then the chest protector, slip it over your head and put your arms through the loops to keep the shoulder pieces in place. Now pull on the elbow protectors. Add the dirt bike style helmet with a sun visor and open face section. Over the helmet put on goggles to protect your eyes from all the crap that might collide with them. Finally, put on the gloves, and then you’re ready to ride.

I started on a small, 125cc bike called Lucy. She’s a spirited little beast. Certainly quick enough to get started, and she feels very light when you’re mounted. After flying over the handlebars and nose diving into the dirt, Lucy doesn’t seem so light any more. Trying to get her back upright was not as easy as it looked. But onwards we soldier, it’s not how often you fall down, it’s how quickly you get back up!

The day started with an introduction to dirt biking from Kevin. He talked me through the basics of how to sit and stand on the bike. Stand over bumps and jumps, sit back on the bike in the straights and forward in the corners. Keep your knees in and your elbows out. Stay close to the bars so you’re not pushed around if the wheel turns without your permission.

Then I mounted Lucy and started with circuits round the flat track. Nothing too dramatic, just riding in a circle to get the hang of cornering, accelerating, braking, and so on. After getting a feel for it, Kevin jumps on a bike and says “follow me”. And so it begins…

We start with some fairly gentle corners, lean over, keep your leg out and forwards. That leg really helps if the bike slips in the corners, as it invariably does. Then up and over one or two mounds and round some tighter bends.

As I learned on my basic riding course, the trick to turning a motorcycle is to turn your head. It really is that simple. Look where you want to go and the bike will follow. I’ve had a few panic moments on the highway where I look at the wall, exactly where I don’t want to go, and then harshly remind myself to look down the road. Every time, the bike pulls through. Turn your head. It’s the same on a dirt bike.

Alas, I missed that principle around one ferociously tight turn and somehow managed to leave the bike, face first, over the bars and into the dirt. Thanks to all the various gear it was a non event. I got up, struggled with Lucy until I got her back on her wheels, and fired her up again.

After my quick recovery we were back on the track, following Kevin once more. Now we started over some bigger mounds, and mounds in quick succession, one after another. Pretty soon I realised that Kevin’s bike is actually leaving the ground as he goes over these humps. As we repeat the circuit we’re getting faster and faster, and pretty soon I can feel my bike getting very light at the top of the hills. So feeling fairly confident in my riding thus far, I push the throttle harder and harder.

Yes, I start jumping. The bike is getting some air, as the saying goes. Harder on each of the successive jumps until, on the third jump, my feet fly completely off the pegs. I land half on the pegs, smash down onto the seat of the bike, my feet hit the dirt, and we carry on. That’s the fear Kevin was talking about!

The trick, I’m told, is to hold onto the bike, for dear life in my case. Grip the bike between your knees, toes and heels. Grab onto it and do not let go while aireborne.

After my first mid-air departure from the bike, I took it considerably easier on future circuits. I think my days of adrenaline chasing fearlessness are behind me. No, I lie, I was never even close to fearless. Besides, I decided it was highly unlikely that I would meet any situations on my travels where jumping my motorcycle would be required.

After about two and a half hours of riding, I was exhausted. That and it was 3:30pm, I had 3 hours road riding to get to my destination for the evening, and about 4 hours of daylight remaining. So I took one quick shot on the bigger 250cc bike, closer to my own bike in terms of weight and size, and that was me finished.

Overall, a great experience. I’m definitely a lot less intimidated by the thought of taking my bike off-road now. Lower the tyre pressure, take it slow, and a motorbike will go a lot of places that a car simply will not. Will I be returning to a dirt bike school any time soon? I doubt it. I might pursue some trail riding training, but flying through the air holding onto a motorcycle for dear life is not my vocation. I shall leave it to men better suited to the job than I.

First day on the bike

My luggage took up more space than I thought. Turns out most of my stuff is still in the bag. I picked up some bungee cords at the local bike shop. I lined the boxes with paper bags and filled them. The rest went into my backpack, wrapped in the bike cover, and strapped on. I gave the chain a hosing of WD40 in preparation for the trip.

Here’s me lubed and loaded for departure.

Lubed and loaded

I left San Francisco a little later than expected at noon. My first big day’s motorcycling. I took route 1 south, the coastal road. The road twists and turns following the California coastline. I’ve read that the views are better while driving northwards. They’re pretty spectacular on the way south also.

Highway 1 going south

Not long into the ride I looked down to see the right fairing flapping against my knee. This is what the left side looks like. Notice the green part with the KL on it.

Left fairing

Now the right side with the fairing removed.

Right missing fairing

So instead of being attached to the bike, the fairing was attached to my luggage!

Fairing luggage

It’s remarkably cold on a motorcycle at 60+ mph. Even through three layers plus a jacket, it’s remarkably cold. Somehow when I’m sitting on the bike my jeans ride up above my boots, so the wind just manages to chill my legs. Longer socks required I think.

Early in the day I passed another motorcycle going in the opposite direction. The rider slipped his hand from the handlebar and gave me a half wave, half salute. It seems to be a biker code of the road. Almost all the other bikers I passed today did the same. After the first one or two I started doing it myself.

On our motorcycle training course they told us that by learning to ride a motorcycle we were joining a club. I understood that today.

The trail continues tomorrow…

Death Valley

After an hour of paperwork hassle, I finally pulled out of the Avis parking lot around 4:20pm on Friday afternoon. Then after an hour in LA traffic I made it to the Santa Monica Hostel to pick up my travelling companion, a Belgian singer by the name of Elena.

Elena had reviewed the suggestions and chosen Death Valley. I’m happy to drive if somebody else is willing to make decisions. We plugged Death Valley National park into the GPS system and we were off. After 8 hours of almost continuous driving we finally rolled into Beatty and checked into Motel 6.

Saturday morning began with driving lessons. My travelling companion does not hold a driving license, so she drove slowly around the parking lot. Driving an automatic really is easy, it’s as easy as a go kart, albeit a bit bigger.

Then we were off to explore Death Valley. Our fist stop was a ghost town called Rhyolite. Rhyolite was a short lived gold rush town. Gold was found in 1904 and by 1910 there were only 611 residents left in the town, from a high of over 10’000. A real life example of American boom and bust history!

One of the talking points of the town is a house built from 32’000 bottles. The house was constructed in 1906 by Tom Kelly. He sold 400 raffle tickets at $5 each and raffled the house upon completion. Today the house is owned by a public body and volunteers give tours of the house and tell the stories of Rhyolite.

Enter Betty, the current tour guide at the bottle house. Betty met Fred some 55 years ago. She sent him out on dates with her girlfriends at the time because she had a boyfriend herself. 6 months later, her then boyfriend chose a poker game over a date with Betty. Betty sent word to Fred that he should call on her sometime. Two weeks and three dates later they were married. They’ve been married for 54 years and Betty says they’re still on their honeymoon!

Here’s Betty and Elena at the bottle house.

Betty and Elena at the bottle house

Elena got some more driving practice around Rhyolite.

Elena at the wheel

From the bottle house we set sail for Scotty’s Castle. En-route we spotted what I think is a salt flat. Naturally we took the car onto it.

Pontiac G6 on a salt flat

Driving practice continued out here. Elena got the car up to 101 mph according to the GPS.

Then followed some photographic tom foolery on the car. It’s not obvious from this picture but I’m standing on the boot (trunk) of the car.

Tom foolery on the car

Observant readers might notice that I’m sporting three new items in this photo. The t-shirt was a gift from Rob, our host in Lawrence, Kansas, thanks Rob. The hat and sleeping bag were purchases in preparation for my motorcycling adventure.

I took this shot just after we left the salt flat.

Looking back

We made it to Scotty’s Castle, a rather odd looking place in the Death Valley National Park. Here’s a shot from the top of a hill that I’m not sure if we were supposed to climb or not.

Scottys Castle

Just as we left we spotted this cheeky fella.


Then from Scotty’s Castle our next stop was Ubehebe Crater. This was unlike anything I have ever seen before.

Ubehebe crater

A sign said half a mile to the little crater. We trotted off up the hill.

Elena coming up to the little crater

The view was worth the hike.

From the top of the hill

Then we saw some people down in the crater. We had to check that out.

Looking down into the crater

The crater floor looked like chocolate flakes. I was tempted to taste it, but I was able to resist.

Cracking mud underfoot

It sure is one big hole.

Big hole

Climbing back up was considerably more work than getting down!

Getting out was the hard part

It was worth it. We were two tired bunnies that night. Then back to Los Angeles on Sunday night. A lot of driving, a great weekend. 🙂

Hotel home cooking

I took advantage of the kitchen in my hotel room tonight. I fryed the chicken in a little water as I didn’t have any oil. Then I constructed a makeshift steamer from a plate placed on top of a bowl in a large pot!

My meal of lightly steamed organic vegetables, steamed / fried organic chicken and organic side salad was most delicious.

Hotel home cooking

Yesterday I was delighted to discover that the hotel has laundry facilities. I was able to wash my clothes and then hang them up to dry without using the tumble dryer. Without a washing line I had to improvise a little…

Improvised washing line

I’m pretty impressed with Chase Suites thus far. Breakfast is served on disposable, styrofoam plates with plastic cutlery, which is a real shame. There’s wired internet but no wifi in the rooms. Could be seen as a benefit or not. Personally, I’ve borrowed a wireless router so I’m wirefree. 🙂 The suite itself is huge. I have a separate bedroom and living / dining room, full kitchen, two flat screen TVs, sofa, and a gigantic bed!