Predawn Ride

The alarm was set for 2:45 am, so I woke at midnight and struggled to go back to sleep. That’s the way it usually works for me. In the long run, it wouldn’t be helpful to stay up, then simply pack up the bike and hit the road a little after 3:00, because I’d feel the lack of sleep later in the morning. Lying in bed, I hung in the twilight halfway between waking and sleep, thinking about motorcycle maintenance and getting ready to photograph in Monument Valley later in the month, then drifted down into the dreaming around 2:00. I woke a half-hour later, wondering if the alarm was about to go off.

Up and moving fifteen minutes earlier than I planned, it seemed that I was ahead of the curve, and I’d have time to stop at the 7-11 convenience store to fill my thermos with decaf. But It took me longer than I expected to get out the door and on the road. I expected to be at the meeting point in Banning on time at 3:45 am, but rolled into the gas station parking lot a few minutes later.

The front tire had felt a bit squishy on the freeway through the badlands between Moreno Valley and Beaumont, so I parked next to the station’s air machine, then struggled to fit the flexible hose between the wheel spokes and onto the air valve. The air machine seemed to be working. It made all of the usual noises, as if it was pumping air into the tube, but there was no way to be certain, since I didn’t have an air gage with me.

Screwing the cap back on the valve stem, I turned to Mike Harmon, who had been waiting when I pulled into the station. “Have you been here long?”

“About fifteen minutes.” He said. “I was on time for a change.”

We started the bikes quickly and rolled back onto the freeway. There was no time to be wasted, since our goal was to be in position in a particular spot in Joshua Tree National Park well before sunrise, in time to set up the cameras to catch the predawn light. I took my eyes off the road occasionally, stealing quick glances at the sky. There was a fair amount of cloud cover in the east. It appeared that we might see some color in the sky at sunrise.

With the exception of a quick biological break at the Whitewater Rest Area, and a very fast topping off of the gas tanks in the town of Yucca Valley, we rode steadily toward the park, and arrived at the chosen spot a half hour before sunrise. We parked on the sloping sandy shoulder of the road and dismounted.

Pulling items from the saddlebag, I had the temporary idea that I was wobbling on my feet. The sensation lasted a half second or so, but I distrusted it, since I’m not that old. I shrugged it off, then it happened again as I unzipped the camera case inside the saddlebag.

The third time I quickly saw that it definitely wasn’t me wobbling as the bike slowly began falling to the right toward me. I grabbed for the luggage rack following the curve of the rear fender and placed my other hand flat against the side of the gas tank, just barely holding the 760 pound machine upright as my hiking boots began sliding in the soft sand. “Help!” I bellowed. A bellow was necessary, because Mike’s helmet and earplugs would block any softer sound. He quickly stepped to the other side and pulled the bike up with the handlebar and seat. I moved the bike to a safer spot in the gutter trough of sand in the shoulder, relieved. It could have been the first time that bike ever went down. 

The Nikon N90s was loaded with a roll of Kodak Gold 100 and there was a second roll in the saddlebag. I put the spare roll into my jacket pocket, slipped the camera strap around my neck, then extracted the Manfrotto tripod and thermos from the left bag and walked across the road toward the east.

Moving through the bush, I congratulated myself for wearing my chaps. We were in the north end of the park, the Mojave Desert, and I’d never seen any Cholla cactus anywhere except in the southern, Lower Colorado section of the park, but I had no desire to stumble onto the lone geographical oddity and find out if Cholla spines really did hurt that much.

Mike had wandered off to the north in the darkness and I lost visual contact with him as I set up the camera and tripod, though I could hear him setting up his equipment through the quiet. I poured coffee into the thermos cup and sipped, watched the eastern horizon, and waited. To our rear, a single lonely coyote called out against the dawn, but received no answering call. I always hear coyotes in the darkness there, though usually several. It would have been odd if there had been no call at all.

The sky gradually lightened and fifteen minutes later I began shooting. The partial cloud cover in the east looked good above the stony ridges, but the vibrant oranges and reds we hoped for didn’t appear. Still, it was better than the skies of my last few pre-dawn rides to the park, which had little cloud cover at all, and it made for better photographs.

After a little more than an hour and a half of shooting, we packed up the cameras and rode east on Park Boulevard. From my perspective, it is unfortunate that “Boulevard” was tacked onto the name. I always associate boulevards as streets in cities or towns and what should have been called Park Road has no association with cities whatever.

I followed Mike on the bike, taking it easy and worrying about the way the front end of the bike was tracking on the road with it’s still-slightly-soft tire. And the rattle of the headlamp was back again. It was annoying. I had been chasing the source of the rattle for a month, opening the lamp housing three times to try sleeves of various materials over the bolt and spring adjustment mechanism. Though it has no negative effect on the operation of the bike or headlamp, it is a problem that all of the older Road Stars apparently develop. Old age. At thirteen years, my 1999 Road Star is a bit more than halfway to “classic” status.

Rounding a long curve, I eyed a long rock formation rising up a hundred and twenty feet from the valley. I liked the way the sunlight was highlighting the cracks and fissures in the formation and thought it might be a good place to stop and shoot the last handful of frames on the second roll of film. Mike slowed, rolled off the road into a pullout and I followed. I took the camera from the saddlebag and looked back at the rock formation. Two photographers with large, long 500 or 600mm lenses – the kind that mount directly onto tripods because they are heavier than the cameras – were shooting something on the rocks. Mike pointed at the middle of the rocks. “Bighorn sheep.” He said.

I shot a few frames as the group of eight sheep ascended the rocks, then walked back to the bike. Too bad I didn’t have a zoon lens on the camera, rather than the 28mm prime, I thought. I then remembered placing my Tokina 70-210mm manual lens in the left saddlebag when I was half awake in the early morning. By then it was too late to remember because the sheep had slowly worked their way up to the crest of the rocks, then gone down the other side, disappearing from view.

We rode slowly to the end of Park Blvd., then took Utah Trail out of the park into Twentynine Palms around 8:30. We stopped at the Denny’s in town for breakfast because the last time we had breakfast there, the hashbrowns were nearly perfect (see The Hashbrown Diaries). This time they were crisp enough on the outside, but somewhat mushy inside. By way of compensation, we both ordered the “senior” breakfast, which is an adequate amount of food, but with coffee cost under $10.

After breakfast, I found an air pump at a gas station that actually worked properly. With a reasonable amount of air pressure, the front end of the bike began tracking properly on the road. After leaving Mike at the I-10/60 Fwy. split, I pulled into my driveway around noon. Overall, and despite the squishy front tire, it was a better than average ride. I’m ready to go again. Any time. Can I go tomorrow, please?