August 16, 2020
The idea was to ride the motorcycle to Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, California on a two-day 550-mile loop . We would dip southwest to Napa, enjoy a brief family visit in Sebastopol, California, head north along the coast, then return past the lakes of central Mendocino and Lake counties. We planned to leave early in the morning to avoid the heat of the Central Valley in California, where it was forecast to be triple digits. In the summer here in the foothills and in the Central Valley, it’s always sunny and hot and almost never rains from April until October or November, so it was only the temperature we’d have to worry about. Plus it would be a cool 55 degrees in Fort Bragg. Natural air conditioning!
I’d readied the BMW R1200CL (aka “Gretel”) for the ride, changing oil, adjusting valves, checking tires, etc. She was ready. I’d never taken a passenger on her aside from a half hour once when I took Susan on a short jaunt to show off Gretel’s comfort so it would be a new challenge. We were ready to ride by 7 am, but the weather – oddly – was not. A huge un-forecast rumble of thunderstorms was directly in our path for a hundred miles and we could see the evil-looking clouds forming around us at home. Neither of us had ever seen more than a small cloud or two in mid-August here and even the weather apps didn’t know what to make of the storm. It was coming from the southwest and heading up to us with thunder, lightning and rain. The new forecast said by 10 am, all would be well so we cooled our heels and waited. And waited some more as the radar still showed huge areas of storms right where we were going at 10 am. But, the untrustworthy forecasters then said this unpredictable storm would be over no later than noon. I stepped outside at noon to see ominous clouds to our southwest. The good news was that we had plenty of time to get to the Napa inn where we were staying for the night and with the cloud cover it would not be nearly as hot as predicted.
Finally, at 2 pm the sky looked better and we saddled up and roared off south to Sacramento where we’d then cross the Valley to the west. Within a half hour we knew this would not be what we expected. The sun had mostly come out and coupled with the recent rains, the heat was stifling with humidity. Humidity is not a word we ever use during summer where we live; it just isn’t, ever. But here it was.
Riding on a motorcycle, even one as comfortable as Gretel, is nothing like being in a car (or cage, as some riders put it). There are no magic buttons to push that will make the bike feel cool, there are no windshield wipers and there is no roof to block the sun.
It was brutal, already 100 degrees. At 70 mph I tried flipping open my helmet visor to let some air in and it was as if someone stuck the nozzle of a very powerful blow dryer in my face. With it closed, it was scorching hot with little air flow. Wearing jeans, black motorcycle boots and a black motorcycle jacket was not helping. At least we both had white helmets. (Note: we are ATGATT—all the gear, all the time—riders, unlike many that simply wear shorts and flip flops).
I knew Susan was hot too, but she’d said before that she would rather be too hot than too cold so I figured she was fine. Actually, I knew she was burning up inside too but I was afraid if I stopped now she’d hitchhike back home and never ride with me again, so I soldered on.
The bike was doing great. It’s truly a marvel of German engineering even if it is 17 years old. It feels supremely well put together and capable even if it’s not a high-horsepower autobahn burner. Gretel soldered on without complaint in the stifling heat. I could feel sweat dripping down my back and when we finally got off the interstate about halfway to Napa, I found a shady tree in a grocery store parking lot where we could stop, rest, and rehydrate. The temperature was 107. We got out a can of juice we’d brought and downed it in a few seconds, then two water bottles disappeared. We couldn’t believe how hot it was after the storm. We rested in the shade (yes, it was 107 in the shade) as the bike cooled. I half expected the exhaust pipes to have melted off by now.
After some mumbling about how we’d never cross California’s Central Valley in summer again (to be repeated throughout the trip), we climbed back aboard and headed mostly west now, into the Vaca Mountain portion of the coastal range. We twisted up and down the mountainous road past beautiful Lake Berryessa, which sadly was struck by lightning the very next day and became part of the massive LNU (Lake-Napa-Unit) Lightning Complex Fire.
We wound back down through hillsides of vineyards before descending into Napa and our air-conditioned room at a downtown inn Susan had found for just $89/night. Normal cost, $392/night but . . . Covid. We unloaded the bike, found our room and checked in (all done without seeing or dealing with another human – again, Covid).
We had no plans to go to wineries; among other things, that would be irresponsible on a bike. Susan had been to Napa a few times before, but I’d never been there and the plan had been to get there in the cool morning and comfortably wander around for a few hours and check out the town. Instead, we arrived at 4:30 in the afternoon, when the temperature had dramatically fallen to 100 degrees.
All we wanted to do upon arrival was get off the bike, squeeze all the sweat from our clothes and shower off the melted parts of ourselves. And that’s pretty much what we did. We luxuriated in the room where some angel had previously set the AC to 68 degrees. Neither of us could recall ever being hotter (though I once rode in 100 degrees and high humidity in stop-and-go Washington DC traffic, so that might count). We downed more water (cold Evian from the lobby fridge!). We’d made it to Napa and miraculously neither us nor the bike had burst into flames during the ride.
Finally cool, we took a walk from our inn to see the town in early evening when it was only 95 degrees. We hopped from one shady side of the street to others, exploring street art, people watching, and looking for something to eat.
Most Napa restaurants were open (outside dining only) but apparently no one had told them that not everyone would pay $50 for a couple of hamburgers. Or else no one cared, because lots and lots of people were socially distantly consuming very expensive food, looking very expensive themselves. Napa is a destination for people living in San Francisco, which explained the high prices. Masks were required and worn everywhere in town, but Napa was the least Covid-looking place we’d seen in the sense that many people were out and tables were full. One entire block was closed to traffic so the restaurants could provide outdoor seating.
We found a relatively inexpensive Mexican place (our go-to when looking for good, plentiful and reasonably-priced) near the central square where we even heard live music. It made us nostalgic for pre-Covid times. Over enchiladas and chile rellenos, we lingered in the dry heat for a while, enjoyed some normalcy, shared a beer, and downed several more glasses of water. Then we headed back to the inn where we collapsed in cool slumber.