Angeles Crest Revisited

If I was still living in New Hampshire, I would’ve seen my first snow this past weekend. Instead, it’s sunny and warm in LA, and I had fun with motorcycles and good people. I’d apologize to my friends in the frozen north, but that would be a lie.

Saturday started with Reuben and Ghazaleh arriving before we were ready for them. We installed the new battery in Carolyn’s Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 Superlow. Lister got extra attention from new people. We spent way too long trying and failing to get three Sena and one Cardo helmet intercoms to talk to each other. Because this is how modern motorcycling works.

Photo: Reuben Livas

After giving up, we went for a quick ride and got lunch. I hopped on the Harley, partly to give it a good shakedown, and partly because a bike intended strictly for pavement is going to be more fun in the twisty canyon roads than my compromised KLR. It’s also faster, so I wouldn’t be holding us up on the freeway to get there.

Reuben and Ghazaleh had other plans for the rest of the day, so Carolyn and I made our way to the west end of the Angeles Crest Highway, the opposite end from where I rode a couple of weeks ago. We took city streets out through Pasadena, where we picked up the 210 out to the west end of Angeles Crest. This end is just as good as the other side. I had to be careful of the Sportster’s shallow lean angle, but leaning my body into the turns has a dramatically positive effect on that.

Not too far up the road, we paused at an overlook to take in the view of Los Angeles. I’m not much for cities, but even I appreciated the amazing view above where I’ve been spending the past two weeks.

We continued up Angeles Crest, then turned left down Angeles Forest Highway. A friend had told me that this road was even better than Angeles Crest. Overall, I agree. There’s much less traffic, and the twisties are even better. The only disadvantage is that it’s a shorter road.

Carolyn led us all the way out to Palmdale, specifically to show me the Joshua trees out there without having to go to Joshua Tree National Park. (Since I have a park pass, I’ll still go anyway.) She really likes these two, in particular. She’d wanted to get a picture of her motorcycle by them for a long time, but for whatever reason never had. Now, thanks to me, she gets a picture of two of her motorcycles by them.

We made our way back the way we came, down Angeles Crest as it began to get dark. As we passed the overlook we stopped at before, we were treated to a view of the LA skyline at sunset, with an orange sky but with the city all lit up as well. We didn’t think to stop because we were trying to get out of the mountains before dark. The headlights on Carolyn’s Kawasaki Vulcan S are great, but the Sportster’s was aimed way too far down, lighting up only about ten feet in front of me on low beam and not much better on high beam. I had her take the lead so I could look ahead of me using her headlight rather than my own. Once we were back into town, I was fine, since the area is very well lit.

To avoid a massive traffic jam on the 210 east, Carolyn led us into the heart of Los Angeles. After circling around a bit, we made our way to the Pie Hole, which specializes in… well, pies. Not just the dessert kind, though. I had a tasty Shepard’s pie for dinner, followed by a slice of Mexican chocolate pie that was to die for. Stomachs satisfied, we headed back to Carolyn’s place, through East LA rather than the highway. It was a long day, but also a whole lot of fun.

We got off to a slow start the next day. I wasn’t even sure we’d get riding. But we took off mid-afternoon and headed down the 210 past Angeles Crest to explore Big Tujunga Canyon Road. As we rode out of Sunland to the beginning of the road, the constant stream of high-end sports cars coming out of the canyon toward us gave me high hopes for the quality of this road. I was not disappointed. I didn’t get any pictures because I was too busy indulging myself through the canyon roads.

It ended at Angeles Forest, which we took back to Angeles Crest. We decided to turn left on Angeles Crest, rather than right toward the highway, just to enjoy ourselves a bit more. After a while, we passed Newcomb’s Ranch, which had been my turnaround point two weeks before. I’ve now ridden the entirety of Angeles Crest, though two weeks apart and on two different bikes. It doesn’t matter — it still counts.

Satisfied, we turned around and made our way back down Angeles Crest toward the highway. Once again, we ended up at the overlook toward LA at sunset. This time, we stopped.

Visibility was much better than the previous night. I could even see the Pacific Ocean past LA, and Catalina Island beyond. If I’d continued past Newcomb’s Ranch two weeks ago, my first look at the Pacific ever would’ve been here, not the Santa Monica Pier. That’s okay. It’s fitting that my first look was at the true end of Route 66, rather than on a side quest where I got to cheat a little bit.

Our trip home was a repeat of the previous night. I’d tried to adjust the Sportster’s headlight higher before we left, but the way it’s bolted on doesn’t allow for height adjustment. How do people ride these in dark areas? I suppose they upgrade their headlights so Harley-Davidson can make more money selling headlights that actually do something useful. At any rate, we got out okay once again, bypassed yet another traffic mess on the 210, but took some other highways back to Pasadena before hitting city streets the rest of the way.

Since the weather is supposed to cool off the rest of the week, Carolyn suggested I take the Harley up to Mount Wilson today. This is it, as seen from her back deck. There’s an observatory up there, plus the road up the mountain is fun — and accessed from Angeles Crest. Oh, darn. It’s also a short ride, so I had time to take a long lunch from work and go for a spin.

Of course, going alone meant I had to do my own navigation. I normally use my Garmin, but there’s no mount on the Harley, nor a USB port or lighter adapter to plug it in. Between Google Maps on my phone and spoken directions through my helmet intercom, though, I was able to solve that problem. Once I was on the 210, I knew how to get to Angeles Crest — and even to a gas station, since the Harley’s fuel light came on after just over 100 miles. (I might have been riding a little bit aggressively…)

Mount Wilson is a little bit past the turnoff for Angeles Forest Highway. The road is similar to the others in the area, except tighter and twistier. While I’ve been pretty much staying in fourth gear on the other roads, I was in third for this one, and sometimes second on the tighter turns. It was more like an autocross course as compared to a race track. This was no speed run, and that’s perfectly okay.

I made it to the top without incident. While the view of the mountains was spectacular, it was too hazy down below to see much of the city. Sadly, I couldn’t see Carolyn’s house from there. It was still worth the trip, though, just for the experience.

I wasn’t quite ready to go back “home” afterward. I thought about riding Angeles Crest all the way back out to the area I camped out in before heading to Carolyn’s, but with no cell service in the mountains I couldn’t plot a route to see how long it would take — something my Garmin could do easily. I wanted to get back before dark, since I didn’t have Carolyn’s headlight to light the way for me. Instead, I decided to ride Big Tujunga Canyon Road in the opposite direction as yesterday for a completely new experience. I remembered the two turns to get to it from yesterday, so I didn’t need Google Maps to do it. Then I’d ride east to get back, away from the setting sun.

It was along this ride that I began to spec out a Sportster build of my own, specifically for a canyon carver. I’ll take the 1200 engine instead of Carolyn’s 883. I found myself at full throttle from time to time and wanting a bit more power. But I don’t need a ton more power, so no crazy stage 3 kits or anything like that. I want more ground clearance to get more lean angle, which is critical for the turns. I want more suspension travel, as well as a softer suspension to soak up the bumps instead of rattling over them. My KLR’s custom off-road suspension is actually amazing on pavement as well, so maybe an off-road Sportster suspension would work. Maybe it would raise the bike a little bit more, too. I have no complaints with Carolyn’s brakes, but if I’m going to make my build more powerful and corner faster, I should beef up the brakes, too. Beyond that, I’m happy.

No, it won’t be as fast as an actual sport bike. That’s not the point. The point is to recreate the experience I’ve been having on Carolyn’s bike, which is a competent corner carver that’s also comfortable, sounds great (though I’d get a quieter exhaust than hers, though), and that I can have fun with at speeds vaguely around the legal limit. I’ve seen a few sport bikers in full leathers coming the other way, all leaned over and carrying crazy speed through the turns. That’s not me. I’m a good rider, but I’m not a racer, nor am I looking to become one. The beauty of Sportsters is that you can turn one into practically anything you want. The parts are out there.

I’m not about to ditch my KLR and build a Harley. That costs money. Plotting, planning, and scheming is free. If the idea still interests me several months or a couple of years from now, maybe I can think about following through with it. For now, it’s just a bit of fun.

Back to reality, I rolled into Sunland and found cell service once again, so I pulled over to plot a route “home.” That journey went without incident. In fact I even found myself splitting lanes on city streets with another Harley at one point. I was back well before dark, as I’d hoped.

Finally, a van update. It’s still at the shop. I visited today to bring my extension cord and plug it into shore power. I realized that it’s getting no charging from solar or the alternator while sitting inside for much longer than I expected. Fortunately, since I’m not living in it, running lights, my laptop, and whatever else, the only thing running it down is the fridge. I would’ve brought that into the house if I’d realized the shop would have it for more than a week, but I didn’t know. The system has enough capacity that it should be fine, though.

Parts are coming in. My request to fix the rear parking brake turned into a number of parts that needed replacing, such as cables and shoes. I’ve seen the old parts myself, and I know they legitimately need replacement. The entire PCV system, plus the EGR valve, on the engine is getting replaced as well. This is just old age setting in. Rubber loses its elasticity, cracks form, and it starts to leak. It’s not going to be a cheap repair, but between the vacuum and the brakes, this should fix every major and minor problem the van has right now, making it good to go a good while longer. Fortunately, I have money in savings that will cover these repairs.

Meanwhile, I’m stuck waiting to make any further plans until the van is fixed. I know I’m heading to Quartzite afterward, but I can’t make progress toward that goal without the van back in my hands. I’d really like to get out there and try to find “my people,” as it were. I’m still feeling a bit lonely here in LA, though Carolyn’s been amazing and I’ve started borrowing some of her friends as well.

I’m still having the routine existential crisis about what I’m going to do with my life, my future, and so on. I’ve been in the same place for more than two weeks now, longer than I’ve stayed anywhere since this journey began. It’s beginning to feel familiar, and I’m reminded of the advantages of “normal” life. I’m not done exploring yet, though, and as much as there are things I like about LA, I can’t see myself settling down here, either. I’m still not sure where I want to end up. I have a plan to work on figuring that out. I just can’t move on it yet.

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