Travel writing; A motorcycle trip up the Pacific Coast Highway


I’ve done a fair amount of travel writing over the years, some of it in such motorcycle magazines as American Iron and Easy Rider. This story was written for a motorcycle club blog after a beautiful 600-mile bike ride up the Pacific Coast Highway. Note the byline change — any writing I’ve done for motorcycle publications has been under my “Bill Frederick” bylines. Bikers who know me wouldn’t know who Arthur Frederick was.


Back in the 1980s, Beth and I went out to Santa Barbara, Calif. to visit my mother and her husband. We borrowed their Dodge camper van and drove it up to San Francisco via the Pacific Coast Highway. It was a beautiful trip, and I’ve always wanted to do it again on a motorcycle. But I just don’t ever get out that way, and riding my bike from Florida to California seems less and less appealing as I get older.

But, this year, my uncle Bernard died. He lived in Fortuna, Calif., way up the coast in redwood country. I have a big crowd of first cousins on the West Coast, people I have only seen a few times in my life, and some of them decided to put together a memorial service so the family could celebrate Bernard’s life together. Things came together for me this time, and I was able to get away and spend a few days in California.

“So,” I thought to myself, “why not fly to San Francisco, rent a bike, and make the final leg of the trip by motorcycle?”

This meant a ride up Highway One, the part of the Pacific Coast Highway that starts just north of San Francisco and ends around 250 miles to the north in Fort Bragg. And just because Highway One comes to an end, that doesn’t mean the great riding and beautiful scenery stops. A quick jog to the west on Rte. 20 comes out at Rte. 101, the Redwood Highway. Another 120 miles to the north gets me to Fortuna, Uncle Bernard’s hometown.

I booked a room at the Holiday Inn Express in South San Francisco, just north of the San Francisco airport and just a few steps from Dudley Perkins Harley-Davidson. Once my plane landed and I got to the motel, I just walked over to Dudley Perkins and did up the paperwork for my rental Harley, which I was to pick up first thing the next day.

Great guys at Dudley Perkins, and they made it all very easy. My HOG membership provided me a $10 per day discount on the sizable $150 per day rental fee; they told me that as a returning customer, the next time I rent from Dudley Perkins means another $10 per day off the rental.

Next morning, I made my way back to Dudley Perkins to pick up my 2013 Road Glide, an exact doppleganger of my own Road Glide, right down to the black paint. I did a couple of tight laps around the Dudley Perkins parking lot to demonstrate that I could ride, and then I was off toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

The bike was familiar and comfortable, but I did quickly realize how the changes I had made to my own bike made it much more comfortable than this rental. My bike has two-inch pullback bars, which allows me to sit up straighter, and highway pegs so I can stretch out my legs.

Also, mechanic Bill Billings had talked me into a different brand of transmission oil that makes shifting silky-smooth, nothing like the clunky bangs that accompanied every shift on the rent-a-bike.

I guess sunshine is a sometimes thing in San Francisco, but on this day there was a cloudless blue sky and the clearest of clear air; I had a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge as I crossed, and also a gorgeous picture of Alcatraz off to my right.

I’ve gotten used to my Garmin satellite navigation system on my own bike, and I asked the Dudley Perkins guys if it was possible to rent a nav from them. Nope, they said, the Garmins have to be hardwired into the bike and they can’t do that with the rental fleet. So this was an old-school ride – watch for the route signs (not an easy task as I rode through the heart of downtown San Francisco) and keep a sharp eye out for any signs that point the way west to Highway One.

I was worried about where to leave Rte. 101 north of San Francisco, but it turned out to be a non-issue – as I got up past Sausalito toward Mill Valley, I saw a sign to Highway One at an off-ramp and turned off the highway. I soon found myself on a very narrow and very twisty road that rose up through the steep hills of Marin County.

These were some of the tightest twisties I’ve ever been on; some of them turned sharply on fairly steep upgrades that the bike couldn’t negotiate except at very low, be-ready-to-put-your-feet down speeds.

Within 30 minutes or so the Pacific Ocean came into view. Soon I came upon a sign pointing to Muir Beach, followed by another sign that said “Muir Beach Scenic Turnout.” This was high on a bluff overlooking the ocean. If there was a beach, it would have required a hike down some steep embankments. I settled for some pictures from the top of the bluff.

Looking behind me to the road that had brought me in from Highway One, I saw a doe and her fawn strolling across the road. After I took the obligatory Pacific Ocean pictures, I walked down to the road to see if I could spot the deer again.  Sure enough, they were munching the grass in a small open spot behind some pines. I got off a few shots, and then a few more when they ran back out to the road and crossed it to some nearby woods. Got some nice pictures of the little one bounding across the road with his four legs tucked up under his body.

Back on the road, I was mesmerized by the beautiful ocean scenery off to my left. There is very little in the way of settlements and population along this stretch, and there was also very little in the way of traffic. Since Highway One is the perfect motorcycle road, I expected to see lots of bikes, but there was only the occasional two-wheeler along the entire 250-mile stretch from San Francisco to Fort Bragg. At one point I saw a group of around five Harleys, and a little later, as I waited at a construction stop, a couple of people on Honda sport bikes pulled up next to me and said hello. When the flag man motioned for us to go, I waived the Honda guys past me and watched them disappear.

I didn’t see any more deer, but I did see something more dangerous – two separate herds of cows walking up the middle of the road. They took up both lanes and didn’t seem to care about my blaring horn. I waited until they crossed and gingerly made my way between the last two stragglers.

Rand McNally had told me that I should be able to reach my destination by four or five o’clock, and that I could make my planned lunch stop in Mendocino a little past noon.  I don’t know what Rand McNally smokes, but he wasn’t even close on the timetable – I didn’t get to Mendocino until almost 4 p.m.

I had seen some very interesting little fish restaurants, several of them advertising various kinds of chowder, and that’s what I was hankering for. But by the time noon approached, there were no more little fish shacks. In fact, there was nothing but more and more breathtaking scenery. At around 2 p.m. I came upon a barbecue joint and pulled in for lunch. I love barbecue, but I can get plenty of it in Florida and I was hoping for something different, maybe even a little unique. By this time I was so hungry I didn’t really care – I had some brisket and a bowl of pretty good chili.

Around halfway through the ride I began to notice some pain and fatigue in my left arm, a result of the almost constant up-and-down shifting and clutching I had been doing through the twisties. The next day my arm felt so dead I’m sure I couldn’t have ridden. I left the bike in the Best Western parking lot and spent the day tagging along in my brother’s rented Mazda.

Highway One ended for me at Fort Bragg — you can stay on Highway One and it eventually leads to Rte. 101, the road that I had been following from Dudley Perkins and all the way through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate. Instead, I chose to head east from Fort Bragg on Rte. 20, which turned out to be a very cool ride through a redwood forest.

Rte. 20 took me to a town called Willets, and I was pretty sure Fortuna, my destination, was only a few miles up the road. I was surprised to see a road sign that informed me that Fortuna was still 120 miles to the north. This was around 5:30 p.m., and I was supposed to be at the Eel River Brew Pub at 7 p.m. for dinner with my Uncle Dek, my Aunt Lois, my brother, six of my cousins and a group of other relatives. Obviously I wasn’t going to be on time for that. I cranked it up, whizzed past a lot of nice-looking redwood trees that I would have enjoyed seeing at a more leisurely pace, and made it to dinner at 7:45.

The next couple of days were hectic. There was a memorial service for Uncle Bernard at the rural cemetery where my grandparents are buried; a family picnic in the redwoods at the south end of the Avenue of the Giants; and then a side trip north to Eureka to visit an old work friend from my UPI days. Dave Rosso, his wife Susan and I had some good fish and chips and chowder at a little seaside eatery, so I finally got the California seafood I was looking for.

On Sunday, it was time to head back to San Francisco to return the Road Glide. For this leg of the trip I left at 6 a.m. and just stayed on Rte. 101 (called the Redwood Highway in northern California), which turned out to be very scenic in its own right, even if it didn’t offer any seaside views. The northern leg obviously featured lots of redwoods, and then the middle part went through some of California’s wine country.

As I approached Marin County, the traffic started to pick up quite a lot, and the fog rolled in just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. When I got to the bridge, its top half was completely obscured by fog, and the three lanes of southbound traffic were really moving.

Once on the bridge, the car in front of me straddled a long, cylindrical yellow traffic marker that had come loose from its upright position. I didn’t have time to avoid it, and I had no place to go anyway; I rolled on the throttle and braced myself. The front tire hit the marker, causing the front of the bike to rise and the handlebars to shake from side to side. When the tire came back down to earth, however, the bike just tracked straight ahead and the handlebar shaking abruptly stopped. It was the only scary incident of the 600-mile trip.

Since I picked up the bike at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, I technically needed to get it back to Dudley Perkins before 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, or face another day’s rental charge. But the guys had told me they would extend a three-hour grace period, and getting there at 12:30 p.m. allowed me to avoid that extra charge. So the charge was for three days instead of four — $450 instead of $600.

My brother and his wife also traveled to San Francisco on Sunday, although several hours later than I did. I had enough time for a nap before we got together for dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf, followed by a tourist-style walk and then a cable car ride.

It would have been a better trip if Beth had been along, but honestly I don’t know if parts of Highway One could have been negotiated safely with a passenger. If we ever decide to recreate this ride, I think we’ll need to get on Highway One a little further north to miss those Marin County twists and turns. Some rides you don’t need to do twice, but I would do this particular ride again in a heartbeat.

Monday was all airplane ride. I caught the shuttle from the Holiday Inn Express at around 4:30 a.m., got through security and took off for Houston, where I had a two-hour layover, just enough time for some ho-hum airport food. Another two hours in the air and I was back in Tampa by around 7 p.m. local time.


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