Last year I was fortunate enough to take my dream vacation and ride Highway 1 in Northern California on a borrowed motorcycle. I have always considered myself to be the kind of biker that chases “that feeling”… the feeling of total freedom and separation from everything. I joked before I left that I wanted to just Evaporate. I had no idea what that really meant or how dramatically my life was about to change because of this one, three day ride on a borrowed Harley.
Wednesday morning I woke early. My Aunt greeted me with a cup of coffee and breakfast. I thanked them again and said my goodbyes. It was now time for me. My head was clogged with Mission Capable rates, broke Jets, frustration with work… oh and the total meltdown of my personal life. For the first time in my life I was not sure of who I was, now it was time to figure it out. I blasted down 101 not sure what to expect. I was surprised by the overwhelming smell of Garlic the second I hit Gilroy and it brought a huge smile to my face. I saw the sign for Monterey and headed over Pacheco Pass where my Step-Dad had told me so many stories of racing over those same roads. I was totally lost in the wind as I wound up and down the pass. Before I knew it, I could smell the salty air… finally, the Pacific. When I rolled into Monterey it was chilly. I was leathered up and there was a thick patch of clouds overhead. I headed for Cannery Row and hit Starbucks immediately. Yes, I am that kind of biker. I sat and enjoyed my Venti Vanilla Mocha for nearly an hour just reveling in the moment. From here my plan was to hit Highway 1 and head north. That was my only plan. I have dreamed about the road that lie before me my entire life. I finished my coffee and jumped on the bike. I took one last look at one of my favorite towns in the world and hit the Pacific Coast Highway. It was beautiful. I was near sea level, the speed limit was 55 and I was alone with my thoughts. Before I knew it I was in Santa Cruz and as it was still chilly I stopped for another cup of coffee and thought about what this town must have been like fifty years ago. I hail from a “Hot Rod” heritage as my Step-Father grew up in the 50’s in Santa Cruz and has a thousand stories that I just never get tired of listening to.
I got back on the road headed for Pacifica and as I hit town the sky cleared and it warmed up. I stopped at a gas station to peel off some layers and saw an old restored Impala. I struck up a conversation with the old guy and asked questions about his youth. I listened to him for nearly an hour. He had stories I had heard all my life and I really enjoyed meeting him. I shook his hand, said goodbye and looked on to the most daunting part of my trip, San Francisco. I was white-knuckled as I made my way down 19th Avenue. My nerves were on high alert as I wound through traffic. As I made my way through my city by the bay I began to relax and enjoy San Francisco for what it is, the epicenter of acceptance. Nobody cares what you have done or where you are going. All these people ask for is an ear to hear their point of view and they promise they will return the favor. They only want to be free. They have found a place nearly totally free of discrimination and ALL are welcome. That is what I have always adored about that city. I take a lot of flak for being from the “Gay Bay” but I am proud of where I’m from and laugh at the ignorance of people that think all of the residents of San Francisco are homosexual. The point is nobody cares what you are, just that you respect their point of view as they respect yours.
A few miles in second gear traffic led me to my bridge. I have had a love of the Golden Gate since I could walk. I cannot describe the feeling I get when I see my bridge. My Dad used to tell me he had a love/hate relationship with the Golden Gate. He was a career Coast Guardsman and when he passed under it headed out of the Bay he hated it because he knew it would be months until he would see his family again. He loved it because when he sailed back into the bay he knew he was finally home. I have walked and driven across, sailed beneath, flown beside in Jacquie’s Cessna and now I will ride over the bridge that has captivated me for thirty years. As I reached the North side I stopped at the lookout point for a few minutes with my grandmother. The bay was foggy and it was chilly but I found a rock to sit on and just listened. Things began to make sense. Even with a few hundred bustling tourists if you try hard enough you can hear the Pacific sing to you. As I left I looked one last time at my bridge and filled my memory with that one moment.
I was back on 101 looking for a way to Highway 1 when I saw the sign for Stinson Beach. I took the exit and saw a sign that said twisty road next 15 miles. I have only really ridden in North Carolina and was not prepared for what that sign really meant. It took me nearly an hour to travel that 15 miles. The road was just incredible. Come down a hill, down shift to second, look through the corner, click into third up the hill, and repeat. It was overcast with a really low cloud. My body was buzzing as every endorphin was popping and I was lost in the greatest moment I have ever had on two wheels. It was a blur of gear, elevation and temperature changes. I spent more time leaned over on a corner than straight up. I will never forget the sound of that Evolution Twin Cam Motor echoing through those canyons. Even now as I sit in my old empty farmhouse the thought of that road makes me tremble. There was one point where I came up a hill and only my helmet was in the low-lying cloud. As I hit Stinson Beach I felt like a new man. I was reunited with the Pacific and hoped to make it to Petaluma to spend the night with my dad.
I really did not know what to expect from this highway. On a map it is just a squiggly line. To my surprise, that is really all it is. A two lane highway barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other with the mighty pacific reminding you of how small you really are. I made my way north and stopped for lunch in Bodega bay at the only sandwich shop for miles. Next to the sandwich shop there is a boat repair dock and I noticed a guy in coveralls sanding some kind of sail boat. It reminded me of something from a movie. I thought to myself how lucky this guy was to live and work in a place as magnificent as this. It was quiet, the sun was out and he was obviously doing something he really loved. As I continued north the road began to wind again and out of nowhere came an incredible sight. I came up a hill, clicked into third and as I made the right handed curve I was 100 feet above the ocean with rocks and huge waves below me. I was in total awe. Anyone who says there is no God has never traveled the coastline of Northern California. I spent the rest of that afternoon grinning from ear to ear as I tested my nerve and the operational capacity of the clutch. I finally had to veer off highway 1 so I could head inland to the Coast Guard training station where my dad has his store. When I arrived at the store I was finally in cell range again and there was a message from my boss. I called him and he said I might have to come back to work and head to Afghanistan. I asked him to use me as a last resort but told him I would do whatever he needed. I had a great night with my dad and we spoke more as friends than as father and son. At his home we had a few beers, or maybe that was just me, and I unloaded my frustrations on him and listened to his advice. He and I don’t have the typical father and son relationship. I spent most of my life with my mom and now that I am old enough to listen to his advice, we get along well. I slept really well that night and felt almost completely at peace.
The next day I woke early to spend a little time with dad before I set off for two solo days on the road. It turned into a double edged sword… I really wanted to hang out with him, but I could not wait to get back to the pacific. After an hour or so I packed the bike, thanked my mom and dad for everything and said my goodbyes. I remember thinking how much fun he has become in his older age.
I took the same road back to highway 1 so I wouldn’t miss a mile. On the way back my nose was bombarded with the sweet scent of the morning coastal air and eucalyptus trees. I felt truly free as I thundered down the highway not sure what I would find or even what I was looking for. I just remember being completely lost in the moment and amazed at the number of bicyclists with saddlebags making the same journey I was. The road was faster and flatter with long sweeping turns that lasted forever. I just cannot describe the feeling of being leaned over back and forth for that long. It seemed like I traveled forever just inland from the coast. It was sunny and just warm enough not to warrant chaps and heavy gloves but cool enough to make the air crisp and delightfully sharp as it hit my face. This is when I really started to zone out, talk to god and begin to see things I have been doing wrong.
I was so happy to see the ocean again. It felt like I had been gone for an eternity. I don’t know what the draw to the ocean is to me, I have never served as a sailor but all the Ward men before me have. I just love being near the water. I stopped often and took pictures. The coast was so intense for me. I swore it couldn’t get any better than what I was looking at and I would round the next bend and my breath would be taken again. I stopped so much the bike never really had time to warm up. This was ok with me, Jacquie’s bike is carbureted like mine and I can tell you without question, there really is nothing in this world like a carbureted Harley. They never run right, they pop, spit, and bark profanities the whole time and I love it. Someday I will own a touring bike, a bike built for thousands carefree miles with the stereo up, the cruise control set, and the coffee pot on. Until then I live for the visceral experience of man and machine learning to live with each others inadequacies. I continued on and stopped at this big outcropping. This point was huge. It was on top of a 75 foot cliff with huge rocks reaching their way up the sides and monster waves crashing in all directions. There were tables set up there so I stopped for a little reflection. I remember talking to my grandmother and god just trying to figure out what was going on inside my head. As I sat deep in thought a seagull landed on the table next to the one I was sitting on, and stayed. He did not seem frightened by me at all so I named him “Pepe”. I laughed at myself for a few minutes for giving him such a ridiculous name but was relaxed and happy. I continued on my journey of discovery and reflection and as I rode things began to make sense.
Jacquie’s bike had been making a loud whine that fluctuated with the RPM’s of the engine and I became worried. I wanted to have it checked out by a professional, unfortunately motorcycle shops on Highway 1 are few and far between. As I rode through Fort Brag I stopped for lunch at a fast food joint, called my sister who I was due to meet the next day. On the north side of Fort Brag I noticed an independent bike shop out of the corner of my eye and nearly locked up the rear brake trying to make the turn into the driveway. I pulled in, met the owner, and explained the problem. He quickly pulled the bike into the bay and began his investigation. As he worked we shot the shit and the more we spoke the more I was fascinated. This guy was the genuine article. He was an old soul rider from the seventies. He looked like he walked straight off the canvass of a David Mann painting. Slender build, medium length salt and pepper hair combed back with a beard, black boots, jeans and a black sweatshirt. He told me a few stories of his rides back in the day with no plans and less direction. I told him where I had been and where I was going and he promptly explained what I was in for in my next leg. From Fort Brag to Leggett, the end of highway 1, was unlike any of the roads I had ridden yet, he explained. “I hope you are ready to see a fireworks show from your pegs” is what he told me about the upcoming thirty miles as the road is the windiest part of the PCH. After a thorough inspection he told me the whine was just the alternator and Evolution motors are notorious for that but the oil and all the fluids were good and I should have no problems. I thanked him and gladly paid the meager $5 he asked for and I was on my way.
I blasted out of town and the road curved east and headed inland. My first impression was intense! He could not have been more right about this glorious road. Newly paved, empty and the craziest switchbacks I have ever seen. A smile was plastered to my face as I slowed, leaned, accelerated and had no choice but to place complete trust in the tires as I looked through the corner. I felt the most intense feeling of liberation. It was so smooth and my body shook with a primal intensity. I could honestly spend the rest of my life riding between Fort Brag and Leggett. Someone put that road there just for me.
When I got to 101 I was greeted for the first time in two days with 65 mph speeds and long never-ending sweepers. It was like going from one fantasy to another. That night I stayed in my first hotel of the trip just north of Leggett. I checked in, called Jacquie and Sheri, did laundry and fell asleep early. Before I passed out I could not seem to get that grin off my face. This was the ride I was destined to take and I was taking full advantage. The next morning I slept in and awaited a call from Sheri to tell me they had left. Their plan was to be on the road by 7am so we could meet in the Redwoods. I was already at the base of the Avenue of the Giants so I milled around and took it easy. I finally got a call from Sheri around eleven saying Haley had some issues and they were finally on their way. She also said they would have to meet me on Interstate 5 somewhere in Oregon. I freaked. I had planned not to ride very far that day because I was already near our previous meeting point. I got dressed, packed the bike, checked out and split. Now I figured I had 400 miles to go and it was already noon so I rode fairly hard. It was chilly and overcast so I was leathered up and eating up the road. I pulled into Eureka and stopped for gas and coffee. After I filled up I met a couple heading back south to Palo Alto. They had been out for a week long loop through the Redwoods. They had not planned to hit Highway 1 but after I told them my stories with an ear-to-ear smile, they changed their minds. This HAS to be my favorite thing about the biker community, no matter whom or where you are, you are always in the company of friends. I flashed a quick smile at the girl behind the counter, scored a free cup of coffee and split. I was making great time but a little bummed my freedom was ending. I had been riding for two days on my own terms and at my own pace and now I had a destination I needed to reach before dark. I tried not to let that get to me as I rocked up the coast. It just got more and more beautiful. I drifted off into thought and really started to realize what I had been doing wrong. I was in deep reflection and on cruise control as I arrived into Crescent City. Once again, I stopped for gas and coffee and got shot a smile from an incredible looking brunette. Since I am Nick Ward I asked for directions just to strike up a conversation and after a much too brief chat, we parted ways. I was bummed as I rode away, she seemed like a really down chick and I wondered what could have been. I even thought about chasing her down and asking if she wanted to have a cup of coffee and we would see where it went. I thought “Sheri would understand if I meet her tomorrow”. That is when it finally hit me… the mistakes I had been making were all about women. I have blown off every person that cares about me at one time or another for a girl.
With that new revelation I hit Highway 199 and blasted inland. The western part of 199 is great, third gear sweepers, more elevation changes and each valley greener than the one before. I pulled into a small café to strip some leather off and talked to a local couple on an afternoon ride, everyone I spoke to was interested in my story and genuinely excited I was able to take my dream vacation. I continued in total relaxation, when I strapped my jacket to the bag on the backseat I was able to lean back and ride in total comfort. My mind went back to what I realized in Crescent City and while on this trip I had plans to see three different girls. As I rode they became less important.
I met my family and enjoyed the rest of my vacation with them. This trip had been among the most powerful three days of my life. I left it all on the Pacific and still can’t get that feeling out of my mind. There were times I actually had to look down to see if gravity still existed. I have always said “Motorcycles are life” without really knowing the power of that statement. Motorcycles changed my life, Highway 1 Changed my life and whatever I felt out there on the twisting majesty made me a better person.
That was a year ago and I cannot express how my life has improved. Every aspect is better. If you ever get a chance to take a ride like this please do not hesitate. The power of Northern California is intense and I will never be the same. I am about to take another vacation home to California and this time I will ride to appreciate what I learned last year and continue on my voyage of self discovery as I chase that feeling of freedom and… evaporate.