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Riding The Crest

The Crest -- also known as Angeles Crest Highway -- also known as CA-2 -- or as my riding and writing buddy Dwight calls it, "Paradise", is a wonderful windy, twisty, exceedingly scenic and damn fun road that runs for 67 miles along the crest of the San Gabriel mountains north-east of Los Angeles, from roughly Pasadena up to the town of Wrightwood in the Angeles National Forest, just below Cajon Pass.  I've not ridden The Crest in a a few years, and to celebrate and inaugurate the entrance into the biker world of my friend Henry, who got his riding endorsement a year ago and bought his baby Ruby -- a Harley-Davidson Softtail Slim -- a short time after, I figured that Dwight and I should take Henry on his first major ride, and what a better road for three Southern Californians than Angeles Crest.

Now we'd planned to do this way back in June -- I'd even reserved a hotel room in Pasadena for the night and planned to ride down the day before, meet up with Henry and Dwight who live in the LA area, and ride back up.  I left the desert that morning, got to Wrightwood only to find that the highway was closed just west of there because of a sink hole and thus you couldn't ride the full 60 miles between Wrightwood and Pasadena.  So at the venerable Grizzly Cafe I texted both of them and canceled our ride the next day and we agreed to reschedule when the highway opened, and I consoled myself with a bowl of Meatball Soup which is one of their specialites before riding back to the desert.

The Crest is a little used (except by bikers) road -- its the kind of road you wonder why they even put it in -- it doesn't really "go" anywhere or get people from A to B, it's a maintenance nightmare carved out the mountains, and there are no towns along the way. But it's damn pretty and a hell of a lot of fun, and that's the most valid purpose of all.  But being that kind of road, it's not high on CalTrans priorities list for fixing, and it took the entire summer to get it done.  When it finally opened after I got back from my August recess in Utah, we scheduled a ride.

And this wouldn't be an overnighter for me this time, I'd just grit my teeth and ride down the freeway that morning to meet them. I got up early and headed out of the desert and into the hell that are Southern California Freeways.  It took me two hours to get to the little coffee shop at the foot of the Crest we'd arranged to meet at.  I texted both Henry and Dwight that morning to confirm things, and told them to watch for each other in case I wasn't there in time.  Henry got there first, I strolled in and after two hours and 110 miles and of course needed to use the restroom before anything else which ammused the barista as I waved to Henry and did a "gotta pee gotta pee gotta pee" chant like a Harley motor sounds like.  When I got back we hugged and chatted while we waited for Dwight who showed up shortly after.

I've known Henry for about 10 years or so now -- he moved to SoCal a few years ago, and drives a bus for Metro Transit.  He wanted to learn to ride forever, and after some pushing from me and pointing him to Harley's riding program where ex-service members like him get in for free, he took the class and caught the bug big time. Dwight, who's pen name is Foster Kinn, I met a couple of years ago after I read his book "Freedom's Rush --Tales from the Biker and the Beast" and talking to him about my still being written book of biker tales "Ghosts of the Road". We've gone riding a few times in California and when I lived in Washington. Since then Dwight has written his second book -- "Freedom's Rush II -- More Tales From The Biker and the Beast", while I still haven't finished mine. But I get to play a small role in his second book of tales which has stories from his rides in Washington, and I was honored to write one of the blurbs for the back cover as well.  Dwight is also adept at making wonderful biker "meme's" which are those little photos with captions that folks post on Facebook all the time, like this one which shows one of the roads that branches off The Crest winding its way back down to the sea.
We had a drink and plotted a bit, and after I gassed up we headed up CA-2 and into the mountains.  Dwight and The Beast took the lead dog position, Henry and Ruby were in the middle, and me and Angus brought up the rear.  This way I could keep an eye on Henry and make sure he was OK, and Dwight who knows The Crest like the back of his hand could plot the course.

Now if God had ever made a perfect day for riding and to make up for closing The Crest all summer this was it. It was warm, dry, clear -- and the prior evening's Santa Ana winds blew all the smog and smoke out of LA and you could actually see Los Angeles from above, and the road snaking back down.  And you could see the ocean.  And you could see Catalina Island way out at sea. And you could see three bikers with endless smiles on their faces because it was the perfect day for a ride and we were on the perfect road for  a perfect ride. It  is, as Dwight said at our first stop where we gazed out over the LA basin towards the west; "why I ride a motorcycle -- it's so damn fun!"

Henry was beyond words and having more fun than he could stand, and me -- well I was loving every minute of the road and the bike and my friends, on a perfect day with perfect weather.  And we'd just barely started.

We climbed back on our rides and pulled out onto the highway -- headed up, and up, and up.  Twisting and turning and curving the entire way. I don't think there is a single spot along the entire length that there is a straight enough section for a passing lane.  And we had the road to ourselves for the most part -- I was stunned at how few cars, and even fellow riders there were.
We had planned on taking the side road up to the Mt. Wilson Observatory but when we got there CalFire had closed the road because of a fire the previous week and I'm guessing there were still some hot-spots and they didn't want to risk re-igniting it with people and vehicles passing by. That's too bad because with the lack of smog today the view back down into the LA basin would have been incredible. But no matter, we were still out in the sunshine and riding The Crest so who cares. Once past Mt. Wilson and the turn off down Tujunga Canyon, there is really nothing except a couple of small ski hills (too small to be "resorts") and forest service campgrounds, and a great biker bar called Newcomb's Ranch the rest of the way to Wrightwood.

This old road really is indescribable in many aspects -- it's just about one of the most perfect motorcycle roads I've ever been on, and the views down into the LA Basin to the south or Antelope Valley and the Mojave desert to the north are amazing.  We pulled into Newcomb's Ranch, but it too was closed, with no explanation. One other biker was resting on a picnic table, but otherwise we had the place to ourselves. I was dissappointed as I had hoped to pick up a CA-2 sticker for Angus's windshield. But it didn't matter as we were out riding The Crest on the most perfect day ever.
We rested a bit in the shade, Dwight and I swapping stories, and Henry just soaking it all in -- stoking the fever he was feeling to get out and explore the road like Dwight and I had already done. All of us just enjoying the sollitude of the road, wind in his face, the mountain air and the roar of the bikes.  Dwight has ridden in all 50 states -- me just the lower 48, but with the countless miles under our feet and the biker adventures we'd had, we kept Henry entertained. Newcomb's is about half-way to Wrightwood, so we saddled back up and kept on riding and climbing, eventually topping out at 7901 feet (that's a nice precise measurement), at Dawson Saddle, where we posed Henry and Ruby for their first High-Point picture.

The rest of the ride was downhill -- but only in a geographic sense. The road and the views were as breathtakingly gorgeous as they had been all the way up, the air fresh and clean with a hint of pine needles as we worked out way west and down into the small town of Wrightwood which pretty much marks the end of the road, as CA-2 ends a few miles past where it meets CA-138 just below Cajon Pass. There's just about nothing sadder than coming to the end of a great ride, but we were looking forward to a late lunch at the Grizzly Cafe -- the first place I'd met Dwight and ridden The Crest two years ago and probably the best place to eat in Wrightwood.  Like Bikers everywhere we "Live To Ride, and we Ride To Eat."  We'd worked up an appetite the past 67 miles of twisty turny jaw dropping pretty road, and we wandered into the Grizzly and sat down.
So over burgers, fries, soup, and apple pie we relived our ride, plotted new rides, told tales of rides, and jobs, and writing and riding, and toasted Henry's first anniversary as a rider, as he'd passed the test for his license exactly a year ago. Dwight chided me for not having finished the book yet -- to which I replied, "well I just lost a year uprooting my life and moving it to California so you'll forgive me." He laughed, but I do need to get back to it and I will, most likely after the first of the year. The muse is a fickle thing we both agreed -- sometimes you can write, and sometimes you can't.  So even with time, the muse might be busy taking her own ride somewhere or sunning herself by my pool, and not want to sit with me in front of a keyboard. But it's still all in my head and it will get put down on paper eventually. But until I do, in the mean time do yourself a favor and get Dwight's, aka Foster Kinn's books --  published by Hugo House and available there or on Amazon in paperback or Kindle.  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00G1XDP2A/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

It was still early enough in the afternoon and light enough that Henry and Dwight could head back down The Crest from whence we came to get home before dark. I was jealous as I had to head back to the desert which is the opposite direction, and I would have to ride only a few more miles on CA-2 before I'd have to turn down Cajon Pass and get on the dreaded I-15.  Dwight gave Henry his two books to inspire him more, and we made plans for a spring ride in the desert and the two of them headed back west on The Crest, and I turned east towards  home.

It was a bit strange being back alone after a day of riding with friends. I kept looking for Henry and Dwight ahead of me and seeing only the empty road. But me and Angus are used to riding alone and its not bad.  I turned down CA-138 and dropped into Cajon Pass, decided to skip I-15 and take a segment of Old US-66 -- The Mother Road -- as it winds up the canyon, stopping to watch a few trains before turning and heading back up the pass and into the desert the back way through Apple Valley and down another favorite road -- if not for the desert scenery then just for the name: "Old Woman Springs Road".  Dwight and Henry beat me back, and Henry had already texted "home safe -- like a pro! LOL" before I made it to my house.  I told him he road like "an old timer and Ruby suits him". He agreed, and Dwight texted and said "He doesn't ride like a newbie at all".  So Henry's earned his leather vest for sure.

And me and Angus, well here we are back in the desert, chomping at the bit to head out again. I've only done a two big rides this year -- and it makes me sad. But there's always next year, and there's always The Crest when I need a quick get away.

October QuickThrottle Column

Bikers love to blame people in cars for causing injuries to riders -- but in reality most accidents are caused by riders doing stupid things, and not by cars not seeing us, contrary to popular belief. I tackle this in the column this month, which my publisher, in his usual short style, said: "Very good. Lots of 'in your face' valid points. Little does of annoyance and some sarcasm. Let all the whiners stew over this and stop blaming cagers for their friends getting hurt or killed!  Mike"

So you be the judge...
Why are we killing ourselves? Seriously, why? Solo motorcycle crashes – those where the rider is the only one involved in the crash are up. Way up.  In 2015, there were 73 motorcycle fatalities and 402 serious injuries to riders on the roads in Washington, up from 69 deaths and 361 serious injuries in 2014. But more alarming is that 75% of those fatalities and injuries were the fault of riders, and slightly more than half were solo riders! In other words, the crash didn’t involve another vehicle. We only make up 4% of the vehicles on the road, but 15% of the fatalities. We are literally killing and injuring ourselves!

Which is why I’m not as alarmed as many riders are about the increased summertime scrutiny of riders by the Washington State Patrol looking for impaired or dangerous motorcycle riders. No, this isn’t “motorcycle profiling”, it’s “idiot” profiling. “Profiling”, that is stopping a rider merely for being a rider or wearing motorcycle club apparel is illegal, thanks to the efforts of many of the motorcycle clubs and groups in Washington a few years ago. Cops are pretty much too busy to just do that anyway.  However, their primary job is to insure safety on the highway and this summer the State Patrol emphasized watching for dangerous and impaired riders. Riding should only be slightly more hazardous than riding in a vehicle, yet it isn’t, and while drivers in cars carry some of the blame, most of the blame falls squarely on us riders. We are doing the stupid things to get ourselves killed.

Take for instance “lane splitting”. I know this is hotly debated in the riding community, and now being a nearly full-time California resident – the only state where it isn’t prohibited by law – I can tell you first hand there are a lot of idiots out there lane splitting at high speeds when they don’t need to. We had a fatality early in the summer in the desert where a rider going 70mph up I-10 lane splitting when traffic was going 40mph, and he ricocheted off four cars before flying off his bike, hitting a fifth car and splattering himself like a bug on a windshield. There is a place for limited slower speed lane splitting, but not like this.

And there is no place for lane splitting in Washington at all. It’s illegal. I saw more lane splitting this summer in Washington than I ever have before, and given the emails here at the magazine, it isn’t Californians who have moved to the Northwest doing it. For some reason, more than a few riders for some reason believe it’s now legal in Washington to lane-split.

Perhaps we all need to go back to high school civics class or listen to that old “School House Rock” video “I’m Just A Bill”, which explains how a bill becomes law. So here’s a refresher. The legislature has two bodies – a House and a Senate, made up of elected officials. A bill must pass, that is be approved, by BOTH the House and the Senate and then be signed by the Governor (or President) to become law. If it passes just one or the other, or is vetoed by the Governor or President, it doesn’t become a law. It’s really very simple. Pass one, pass the other, be signed Everyone got that?

So, this past legislative session in Olympia – the one that lasted until July – there was a bill introduced to allow limited lane splitting at slow speeds. The bill was passed by the Senate, and it got a lot of coverage in the media and the motorcycle press. Yay – passed one chamber. First step done. But it wasn’t passed by the House, it never had a hearing let alone a vote. Boo. It didn’t go any further and so it didn’t become law. But for some reason, more than a few folks who have been cited by the WSP and who have written into the magazine here have complained they thought it had passed. It didn’t.  And if it did, it wouldn’t have applied to high-speed on the freeway at all. Maybe it will pass down the road – I hope it does. But it didn’t last year, it’s not legal, so just stop it!

And for God’s sake, stop harping on the State Patrol for doing emphasis patrols on dangerous riders. Cops I’ve spoken truly aren’t profiling riders just because you are riding a motorcycle. They aren’t looking to see if you are wearing “club apparel”, or even if your helmet is DOT or not. They are looking for riders who are driving like idiots, or who are impaired, who are driving recklessly, or riding too fast, are lane splitting, and following too closely or speeding, and/or are just plain being stupid, putting themselves and others on the highway at risk. If you get pulled over during one of these emphasis patrols it’s because you are behaving badly.

We’ve all seen these idiots, whether we are driving our cars or riding our bikes. Speeding, weaving, lane splitting, doing wheelies on the freeway. Granted it’s a small minority of riders, but they are the ones who get the attention and they are the ones who are getting hurt or killed by being reckless. But their actions affect all of us. Not just because they are fellow riders and maybe even loved ones and friends whom we don’t want to see injured or killed. But because their actions result in increased insurance costs for all of us – health and vehicle – as well as delayed traffic because of an accident, and space in an emergency room for other casualties. And more important, their actions influence policy makers, who love to look tough by “clamping down on those awful motorcycle riders who terrorize the roads.” That’s where anti-biker legislation comes from. If you think you’re doing a wheelie flying down SR-518 in Burien hurts only yourself if you crash, think again.

And besides, I don’t want to lose any more riding friends – or even potential friends. Yeah, I’m probably channeling my Mother at this point: “wear your helmet, don’t speed, and ride safe, wear clean underwear in case you are in an accident”, but as much as we want to blame the cars for our injuries and for killing us we are killing and hurting ourselves. We can’t control what drivers in cages do to us, but we certainly can control what we are doing to ourselves.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com

September QuickThrottle Column

Well, I'm back in the desert after spending six weeks in Utah with the family. It's good to be home, and it's starting to cool down!  YAY!  It's getting to be almost the middle of September already too, and I'm coming up on a year being gone from Seattle. Time has flown for sure.  Here is my September column in Quick Throttle -- this time looking at the exciting topic of highway funding in an era of declining gas tax revenue because of all the damn Priuseseses, Leaves and Teslassssss (as well as spandex wearing bicycle riders) and their ilk who don't pay any gas tax or pay very little.  Exactly how are we supposed to maintain roads when no one is paying gas tax? This column also marks the start of my EIGHTH year writing it.  Can't believe they've let me spout off this long!  Thanks Mike!

Summer means its road construction season and boy are they busy. The weather has been glorious this summer – so far – and so have the road construction projects. But the roads certainly aren’t getting any less crowded, and certainly they aren’t getting any easier to ride on. Chuckholes, uneven pavement, poor lane markings, and too many cars mean that when they do get around to repairing things, the repairs don’t last and the construction period often makes things worse. Such is the nature of road work in the Northwest (and everywhere for that matter – back down in California it’s not much better either.)

Riding is about the freedom to escape, to wander down a road and get lost. But we must have roads to wander down in the first place, and roads take money. Part of the problem stems from too many cars on too few lanes of roadway. The northwest – at least the Puget Sound region, has drastically outgrown the road system, and as much as we’d like to, the combination of terrain, the political climate, and a lack of money will prevent any major congestion relief work, save for the rebuild of I-5 through Pierce County along Joint Base Lewis/McChord. Even the much-vaunted tunnel under Seattle won’t increase capacity, in fact it decreases it, but the combination of tolls and lack of downtown exits will I think smooth out through traffic some.

Face it. Politically, and in Western Washington particularly, expanding road capacity is viewed as downright evil. But we still must maintain what roads we’ve got, and while the political will may be there, the funds really aren’t. We can argue until the cows come home about whether the state and cities are spending their limited road construction dollars wisely (they aren’t), or whether they deserve more money or not (they do, if we want to be able to drive.)  But the reason we are even having this discussion is because the main source of funding for road construction is shrinking faster than an ice cube on a sidewalk on a hot summer day.

The major source of road construction and maintenance funding is the gas tax. In Washington, we are paying .49 cents per gallon in gas tax. That’s two bucks every time I fill up my Dyna, and a whopping $12 dollars every time I fill up my Hummer. In the land where the Prius, Leaf, and Tesla’s driven by enviro-elitists are kings, I’m overpaying for my share of the roads for sure. Electric cars, and hybrids don’t pay any gas tax, or at best a marginal amount compared to their share of the maintenance and construction costs of the roads they are driving on. Let alone bicycle riders who demand entire lanes but don’t pay a penny towards construction and maintenance for them. With the Prius the most popular car in Western Washington, that’s a lot of lost tax revenue.

Note I said lost revenue. It’s just that, lost. Although the “progressive” crowd won’t see it that way. But if they can say that choosing not to tax something, like say bottled water or soda pop is a “tax giveaway” (thus assuming all revenue belongs to the state first), then we can certainly use “lost revenue” to describe the amount of road funding that is not being paid by electric vehicle and hybrid drivers and bicycle riders. “Oh, but we are saving the environment so we should be rewarded” they say with a holier-than-though smirk as they drive on a road us riders and drivers of gasoline powered vehicles pay for.

There is another option though – one that will certainly put them into the camp of paying their fair share of the roads they are driving on. Changing the gas tax and moving to a “Road User Charge”.  Both Oregon and Washington are headed down paths of experimenting and seeing if this is a fairer way to collect the amount needed to keep the road infrastructure passable. In the past this was not an idea I took a liking to, but being back in Washington for the summer and surrounded by swarms of Priuses, or Prii or whatever we call multiples of those damn Toyotas, I’m beginning to think this might be a good idea. Maybe at least for those vehicles who don’t pay any gas tax.  And depending on what kind of a rate is set, it might be a good idea for motorcycle riders as well. After all we are most certainly overpaying for our share of the road given the amount of road real-estate a bike takes up, and the miniscule wear and tear a bike puts on the road. A license fee for bicycles would help a little as well, and only fair.

The state is a long way from figuring out any and imposing a program – like how much per mile, and are things like vehicle weight, engine size, number of wheels, etc. factored into the amount. Right now they are just trying to figure out how to measure it and whether it might even be a good way – or even a fairer way -- to replace a gas tax. But you can help if you are so inclined.

The state is seeking up to 2000 people to be involved in a pilot project test and to provide input in this process. It’s a good way for you to have your voice heard – whether the rates are fair and just, is the privacy of data collected a concern, and how will it be collected, and what things should be considered in all those areas. You can sign up to get more information and to perhaps be chosen for the pilot project by visiting the state’s special web site for this project:  https://waroadusagecharge.org.  They will be setting up the pilot project late in the fall of this year, and expect to start later this year.

If I were still a permanent resident of the Evergreen State I’d probably be taking part – and I’d bet not a lot of motorcyclists will be signing up. However, I’ll be headed back to the desert about the time all this gets rolling.  But I’ll be watching the results and how it evolves, because, like it or not, the days of the gas tax I’m sure are numbered. If we want to keep riding, we’ll have to figure out something, and we as riders, should have a seat at the table.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com 

A Gift To Myself

I usually make an effort to get to my hometown of Salt Lake City in the summer around my Mother’s birthday, August 28th.  In the past, I’ve stayed about a week, often on an extended motorcycle trip. This year though I decided to escape the hellish heat of the desert for the entire month of August, which for the most part, I have been spending here in Salt Lake, staying with my Mom and her husband Ron.

It’s been a wonderful month, and it’s winding down fast. Today is Mom's 82nd birthday, and she’s as young and as pretty as ever, and you would never guess her to be 82 years old. She really doesn’t ever want any presents – “more things to dust” she says. All she really wants is my time and maybe a card, and maybe we go to lunch or dinner.

Well we’ve spent a lot of time together this trip. Sometimes doing mundane things like going for a long four-mile exercise walk most mornings, visiting the local farmers market for produce, and just sitting on the couch talking. And we’ve done some wonderful things like explore her roots and her childhood – visiting the homes she lived in here in Salt Lake as a teenager, and her hometown of Clifton, Idaho.
We spent a night in Clifton at her cousin’s house – which used to belong to her Aunt Jane, the one-time general store proprietor and postmistress of the map-dot town of Clifton. We did our morning power walk all over this little farming village, walking down the main street of town, past where her childhood home once stood – an area that now is a field farmed by her cousin, but where a patch of flowers still blooms every spring near where their front door once stood, now surrounded by acres of alfalfa.
Then further down the highway towards where her Grandmother used to live – passing over the irrigation canal that they used to go swimming in as kids, reminiscing about her life as a little girl growing up in this small farm town. I loved hearing her stories and remembrances -- how she'd walk down to Grandma's House, now a whitewashed empty farm shed on the old property where her Grandpa settled back in the 1930s and where her Mother was raised.  When she'd walk down to her Grandma's house, Mom's job was to watch the fields for her Grandpa's tractor to turn at this tree on the far side across the valley from the old family farm and head back to the house and to let Grandma know so she could get his supper on the table.
We took a number of pictures, even driving up in the evening to the small cemetery overlooking the town – where her grandparents, aunts and uncles are all buried.  It’s a very peaceful and serene place. I think she’d like to rest up here one day, but she and Ron already have “file drawers” paid for in an above ground crypt here in a cemetery in Salt Lake. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more peaceful and serene cemetery with such a nice view.
We documented the Idaho trip as well as the early homes in Salt Lake with photos as Mom is reworking her journals into a life story. It was a very special privilege for me to help her with this. I think I learned more about her early life than I ever have in the past, and we shared more memories and stories of our own than I can remember on those long four mile morning walks that wear me out but don't seem to phase her despite her years.

So, her “gift”, if you will this year, was a trip to a new trendy ice-cream sandwich place after lunch at her favorite Mexican restaurant today. Not really much, but special nonetheless. But the more I think of it, I’ve realized that it was me who got the gift for her birthday, not her. The priceless gift of quality personal time with my Mom.  Thanks Mom, I couldn't have asked for a better gift on your birthday.

August QuickThrottle Column

I've been having a wonderful time with the family and friends in Utah so far this August.  I'm taking Mom and my step-dad Ron up to Idaho this week to visit some of Mom's relatives in her hometown of Clifton, ID, and then up to Boise to visit my step-sister Tammy and her family. I'm enjoying reconnecting with a lot of my Utah roots, and will have some thoughts on that down the road.  In the mean time here is my August column for your enjoyment and/or annoyance. 
Raise your hand if you like insurance companies. That’s what I thought. They are, unfortunately a necessary evil in today’s litigious society. And it often seems that their sole purpose is to collect premiums from us and then deny liability when we go to make a claim. We are required by law to purchase it for our four-wheeled motor vehicles, and for our health care if our employer doesn’t provide it or we aren’t old enough or poor enough for Medicare and Medicaid. Our mortgage lender requires it for our house if we have a mortgage, and many landlords require renters insurance. I know very few people who really like their insurance companies, whether it’s vehicle, homeowners, or health, especially whenever you write the check for your policy. Let’s face it, there isn’t a lot to like about them.

But from time to time insurance companies actually do things that make you think they really care about their customers and non-customers alike. Maybe they do, or maybe they are just doing things to keep from paying out claims if they don’t have to.

It does make good business sense to take precautionary steps to keep people from making claims in the first place – it’s why you get a discount on home owners insurance for having a burglar alarm, or on motorcycle insurance for having passed a rider safety course. Why health insurers don’t see this and balk at paying for routine checkups that can catch and prevent expensive things down the road is beyond me (and way beyond the scope of this magazine column, and I’m getting sidetracked here.)

So, I’m going to give a huge shout-out and applaud the efforts of a couple of giant insurance companies – State Farm and Geico for not only reminding riders of our responsibilities to ride safely, and listing ways for riders to be safe, but for also calling out to drivers to watch out for and pay attention to motorcycle riders. In a recent mailer to customers, State Farm said: “A heads-up for motorists: Collisions with motorcycles are usually the non-motorcycle driver's fault. Remember, motorcyclists have the same rights as other drivers. Check your blind spot, signal your intentions and avoid distractions.”

And both State Farm and Geico are making massive marketing outreaches to the riding community, touting their rates and coverage.  In California Geico is putting up billboards every few miles offering motorcycle coverage and State Farm is blanketing the state with TV commercials. The insurance industry has discovered that riders are a good source of premium dollars – and apparently the payouts are not high enough to not go after attracting new customers. Why our own Northwest homegrown insurer PEMCO doesn’t do this I don’t know, but it’s nice to see that we riders are a wanted customer base by major insurers.

And on the topic of insurance, I was talking with a buddy outside a coffee shop in downtown Palm Springs who just bought a brand new $30,000 Street Glide and was complaining that “Harley Finance insists that I get insurance but the state doesn’t require it so why should they? What a crock!” Having been a banking industry lobbyist for years I told him the lender is protecting their assets in case you wreck it – “you wanna be paying back $30K on a loan for a bike you don’t own anymore?” He scoffed and said “that’s not gonna happen, and if it did I’ll just walk away from it and not pay it back, the bank can afford the loss.”  “Yeah, well good luck with that buddy” I replied as he sped off and promptly lane split his way to a traffic light. I do have to question the judgement of those riders who choose to ride without insurance since the state doesn’t require it – much the same way I question the wisdom of folks who choose to ride helmetless.  In a way I’m glad lenders do require insurance – although I’ve mixed feelings about the government requiring insurance or helmets.  I will always have both, but it’s my choice. It makes me think what the riding community would say if lenders or insurers required helmets too?

Plain and simple anyone who doesn’t ride with insurance (or a helmet for that matter) is a fool in my book, and at times the libertarian in me cringes and wishes the state did require insurance. My coffee shop buddy bought just the bare minimum that Harley finance required of him, and I can only hope he doesn’t ever need anything more. For instance, they don’t require un-insured and under-insured motorist coverage. But frankly, the person that hits you is far more likely to be un-insured or under-insured leaving you to foot the bill, and if you don’t have the coverage yourself, you are out in the cold mister!  I’ve (knock on wood) luckily only been involved in two accidents in my years of driving and riding – both times, once riding and once driving, I was struck by someone who had either no insurance or not enough insurance to cover the damages. I was very glad for that uninsured/underinsured coverage let me tell you.

These days I’m fortunate to own all my bikes and vehicles free and clear. The states of Washington and California where I reside and have my vehicles licensed all require liability insurance only and only for the vehicles, not the bikes -- but I carry full coverage for everything.  I’ll increase my collision deductible to save some bucks, but I wouldn’t be caught dead without liability and uninsured motorist coverage.  Face it, people who can afford to drive a Bently don’t “need” insurance but are more likely to carry full coverage anyway and are, for whatever reason, seem to be a lot less careless on the road than the schmuck in a beater.

And no, I’m not an insurance salesman, nor do I own stock in any insurer. But I do think it behooves every rider to carry liability and uninsured motorist coverage at a minimum. And, yes, the libertarian in me cringes at the notion of the state requiring insurance for riders like they do for vehicle drivers. There is some logic to the notion that it’s the penalties in increased insurance costs are a major factor for people being a bit more alert driving for fear of increased insurance costs for stupid driving error and minor accidents. So, maybe we need to consider it for motorcycles as well – in the long run it will benefit all of us with more riders in the insurance pool, and insurance companies paying attention to that and working to increase rider safety. Coupled with the “threat” of higher premiums, just maybe we’ll have some more careful riders on the road.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com 

Finding Salvation

I'm spending most of the month of August back in my native homeland of Utah. Staying with my parents, catching up with family. Ironically it was supposed to be an escape from the extreme heat of the desert this time of year, but the day I arrived it was three degrees warmer in Salt Lake City than back home in Desert Hot Springs -- 98 and 95 respectively. Go figure. Since then it's cooled off a bit and has been very pleasant here at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.

But today, being the first Sunday of the month, means it's "Fast Sunday", a day on which people here in Mormonland refrain from eating or drinking from the time they go to bed Saturday night until they finish church on Sunday. "Fasting" is obviously not in my vocabulary. So this morning, knowing there would be no Mom-cooked breakfast and as they headed off to church in search of heaven and eternal salvation, I hopped on Angus for my own version of heaven -- breakfast at the venerable and ancient Silver Fork Lodge, high in the Wasatch Mountains, up "MY" canyon, Big Cottonwood Canyon east of Salt Lake City. (If you want to know why it's MY canyon, you can read my post about BCC I wrote back in 2010 http://grgardner.livejournal.com/46526.html )
It actually was  a bit cool as I headed out of the garage and up the hill towards the foot of Mount Olympus and down the road to the Canyon, and traffic was delightfully light. My riding and writing buddy Dwight calls Angeles Crest Highway, (CA-2) "Paradise", well if that's paradise, the roads I traveled today would be Nirvana.  Some 15 miles of twists and turns climbing deeper into the Wasatch Mountains over the course of a 45 minutes brought me to Silver Fork Lodge, an old log and wood structure that predates my birth by more than a few years and has always been a favorite place in the canyon. I've often fantasized about buying this small hotel and restaurant and bar -- a place I've been coming to since high school.

There was already a small crowd eating when I pulled into the parking lot, but I got a nice table outside on the back patio where I could look up at my mountains through the aspen trees, hear the creek burbling down the canyon off the patio, smell the coffee and bacon cooking and enjoy the crisp clean mountain air. Breakfast was a short-stack of their famous sourdough pancakes (from a 50 year old sourdough starter), hashbrowns with cheese and salsa, coffee and ice tea to wash down my bakers-dozen morning vitamin, blood pressure, and cholesterol pill cocktail.

And while the folks and the rest of Mormondom were sitting on hard wooden pews in a stuffy chapel, empty stomachs rumbling during a long sermon, I was finding my salvation high in the Wasatch with an unbeatable breakfast in a truly celestial setting. I know I won't live forever, but when I die, this is where I want to end up. This is where I truly find my salvation, my heaven, my kingdom of glory. A mountain highway on the back of a motorcycle.

But the morning crowd of Prius driving gentile (non-Mormon) yuppie hikers headed up MY canyon started to fill up the waiting area so I decided I'd better make room for them and ambled back out to Angus and headed further up BCC, past the ski resorts -- Solitude and Brighton, around the cirque loop and here I had to make a decision:  Ride back down the canyon and home and Mom's post church Sunday dinner, which today would be parmesan fried chicken, fresh Utah corn on the cob, and a huge pan of Funeral Potatoes, or keep riding for a bit. And since Mormon services last an interminable three hours, I knew I had some time to kill in the church of the canyon so I decided to head on up and over Guardsman Pass and down into Park City.  Swinging back onto the road down I turned and climbed up to Guardsman -- stopping for one last look down MY canyon towards the Salt Lake Valley.
Then over the pass and down into Park City. Back when I was a kid Park City was a sleepy little ski area in a dying mountain mining town. Now it's the uber hip cool resort home of the Sundance Film Festival and one of the largest ski areas in the country. It's crowded and overbuilt -- but still pleasant for the most part. However today there was some sort of event in the town and all the roads thru were blocked and everyone was forced around the town and those attending whatever event it was shuttled in from packed distant parking lots. For me this meant losing my direct way back down to Salt Lake and before I knew it I was headed East out of Park City and found myself on the road towards the small towns of Peoa and Kamas -- places we'd stop and buy worms on fishing trips to the Uinta Mountains when I was a kid. I figured I still had time and decided to see what had changed along this road since I was young.

Alas, there were a lot of changes -- sadly none for the better, and all having to do with the influx of people moving to Utah in the years since I left. I guess its true, you can never go home again.  In Kamas there was a sign for UT-150 and Mirror Lake, high in the Uinta Mountains. The sign said 43 miles. I said, "what the heck".  I turned off and headed into the Uinta's, curving and turning along the upper Provo River, higher and higher, past campgrounds I'd stayed at as a kid with my family, where I'd learned to ride a motorcycle for the first time back when I was 12 or so.

The road climbs and twists up towards Bald Mountain Pass, a serene spot in the Uintas that was one of the last places I visited before I left Utah back in 1984 and headed to Phoenix. I wanted to do a panoramic picture at sunrise and sunset of one of the places I loved and to remind me of home when I left. I got up before dawn one morning and drove up to do my sunrise panorama at the top of Bald Mountain Pass, facing West down the Provo River and towards the Wasatch.
I took about 20 photos, my camera mounted on a tripod, each one a couple of degrees apart. Then I drove back down to Provo and went to school all day, and then drove back up at sunset to shoot Eastwards towards Hayden Peak and down the Duchesne River, taking 20 or so photos the same as in the morning.
When they were developed I pasted them, overlapping them into two 180 degree panoramas and had them framed.  The West facing one I still have and is in my office today -- the East facing one I gave to my father, and I don't know what happened to it. In the pre-digital age they were shot on good old fashioned 35mm film and I've long since lost the negatives in the ensuing 34 years. At least the view and the mountains haven't changed.

By now the folks were headed home from church, but I wasn't ready to head back. A quick text to Mom saying "Its too nice to quit riding, so eat without me, sorry" and I was on my way. Bald Mountain Pass is at an elevation of 10,700 feet, on one side the water flows down towards the Provo River, into Utah Lake, then up the Jordan River to the Great Salt Lake where it eventually evaporates. On the other side, the water runs down the Duchesne River, which flows into the Green, which flows into the Colorado and eventually all the way to the Pacific. Or perhaps it ends in my faucet in the Desert, as the water that I get at my home is pumped out of an underground aquifer that is fed by water from the Colorado River Aqueduct, an engineering marvel that pumps water from the Colorado River, across the Mojave desert to provide drinking water to Southern California. The desert communities get a share of this water which flows out of the aqueduct a few miles from my house into giant percolation ponds that replenish the underground aquifer under the Coachella Valley. It's nice, and a bit touching, to think that the water I drink at one time started as snowmelt high in the mountains of my homeland somewhere near this spot.
I get a text back from Mom saying: "Don't worry, we aren't waiting we are starving", which is the usual response following a Mormon Fast Sunday. The road turned North towards Wyoming as I dropped down the pass, and soon I was out of the mountains and into the high plains of the Cowboy State headed towards Evanston.
Flying past ranches and hay fields and oil pumps in this corner of the rectangle shape of Wyoming that keeps Utah from being a similar square shaped state, I pass more than a few abandoned homesteads and ranches. Past the roads leading to my old stomping grounds --  to towns like Urie and Robertson and Burnt Fork. This is harsh country here, especially in the winter, but to me it's home.
In Evanston I am forced to jump onto Interstate 80 for a few miles until I can drop onto the old remnants of US-30 for a few miles, following the original transcontinental railroad down Echo Canyon, before I get back onto I-80 and roar past Wanship and Coalville and Park City again, then down Parley's Canyon and into the valley. Roads I've ridden and driven countless times in my nearly 56 years on earth -- roads I could drive with my eyes closed but I don't because you enjoy them so much -- like a favorite TV show or movie that you've seen a thousand times and know all the words too and watch over and over again because you love them so much.

I rumbled into the driveway about three hours past dinner time -- some 250 miles under my feet, my face and arms sunburned. The folks are on the couch watching TV and there's a plate of chicken, funeral potatoes, and fresh corn waiting for me on the dining room table. Having not eaten since my breakfast at Silver Fork, I too break my Fast Sunday fast, having found my own personal salvation on Angus riding the roads of my youth in the Wasatch and Uintas. Faithful Mormons hope that their efforts will lead them when they die to the Celestial Kingdom.  Me, I've found my Celestial Kingdom here on earth -- high in these mountains where I grew up. When I die, THIS is where I want to come. I hope I do.

July Quick Throttle Column

June was a busy month, and was lucky enough to tour the National Parks of Utah with some friends from the UK. I'm writing about that, but it's slow goinging.  The muse is fickle. In the mean time I have actual paid writing to get done like my column for Quick Throttle. Here is my June one. I'm hoping my friends in Oregon are still speaking to me after this slap at their odd-ball gas pump laws. I'll hopefully be back up that way for a visit in August.

Summer has finally arrived, after what was by all indications, the wettest winter on record in the Northwest. Time to hit the road on the bike, dry out and explore. Time to wander down a new road until the gas tank drops to near empty. Then pull into a nearby gas station and grab the pump handle fill up for another round. Except in Oregon. I’ve never figured out exactly why Oregon (and New Jersey) think we are all too stupid or inept or clumsy to pump our own fuel. For crying out loud I was pumping gas for my Mom back in the early 60s when I was about 6 years old and we had Ethyl and Regular! It’s not complicated. Except in Oregon. But that could change soon.

What do bikers and the residents of a few rural Oregon counties have in common? Well, apparently, according to the Oregon Legislature, we are all now smart enough to be able to pump our own gas!  How about that?! The legislators inhabiting the capitol in Salem actually passed legislation to allow the residents of some fifteen counties in rural Oregon to pump their own gas. We bikers, and citizens of those few counties, are clearly smarter, and physically adept enough – unlike the residents of say, Portlandia, to be able to remove a gas cap, lift a pump nozzle off a rack, insert it into the opening of the car, insert a credit card in a slot and pull it out, and then squeeze the nozzle to allow fuel to be dispensed and then return said nozzle to its rack.

Bikers have been able to do this for some time already, except for the lift the pump nozzle, and insert the credit card part. It’s explicitly spelled out in law what we can and cannot touch!  I guess we aren’t smart enough to lift the handle and insert the credit card. But clearly, we are far superior to those folks living in the urban areas of the Beaver State who can’t do anything at all. ORS 480.349 states that:

“Upon the request of an operator of a motorcycle, the owner, operator or employee of a filling station, service station, garage or other dispensary where Class 1 flammable liquids are dispensed at retail shall set the fuel dispensing device and hand the discharge nozzle to the operator of the motorcycle.
(b) An operator of a motorcycle who is handed a discharge nozzle under paragraph (a) of this subsection:
(A) May dispense Class 1 flammable liquids into the operator’s motorcycle.
(B) Shall, after dispensing the liquids, return the discharge nozzle to the owner, operator or employee.”

And now in those few small population counties I guess we’ll even be able to handle all parts of the transaction all by ourselves just like the hardscrabble farmers and ranchers that live in the rural outback. And face it, that’s where the really cool roads are anyway. Back in 1951, when Oregon first mandated that only trained station workers could put “Class 1 flammable liquids” into cars, the state mainly didn’t want people accidentally blowing things up. Even after gas station technology improved, the argument was extended to include employment considerations and interesting provisions worrying that small children and the elderly would be put at “unreasonable discomfort” if forced to pump their own gasoline.  Last year the Legislature allowed for self-service pumping in some rural counties at night when the station was closed if the pump was a modern credit card activated one (and when was the last time you saw one that wasn’t except in a museum or the restored one in my garage?) And now later this year folks in those counties can do it 24/7! Welcome to the modern age.

But this monumental change wasn’t made without a fight, although the votes in the legislature were nearly unanimous. "Today I voted for limited self-service gas in extremely rural areas late at night," Sen. Sara Gelser D-Corvallis tweeted. "Am I still a real Oregonian?" The most common argument, aside from a ludicrous safety and environmental impact ones that no one really believes, is that it creates jobs. Well so do buggy whip makers, although we don’t need those anymore. Reading the comments in the online versions of the Oregonian paper made me cringe as much as reading the Seattle Times political section does these days. “I simply don’t understand people that are so hell bent to pump their own gas, I drive all over the nation and find it annoying as all hell to pump your own gas.”  Maybe they are related to Thurston Howell III.  “Heck yea, let’s get business and oil companies make bigger bucks while taking jobs.” “First self-service check outs at the grocery store and now this, no wonder we have homeless folks all over.”
Not that there is anything wrong with being a pump jockey, my own father was one, working at my grandfather’s filling station on old US-91 in Nephi, Utah back in the 1940s. Back then EVERYONE got full service – gas, oil check, tire check, windshield wash and usually a smile too. But those days are long gone.

So, welcome to the modern era rural Oregon! All you hipsters and yuppies in Porlandia still have to sit and wait for someone to fill you up. But rural Oregon, well you can join company with us smart bikers and drivers in the rest of the country who can handle a gas pump. It’s not that hard! Well I guess almost all the country -- the folks in New Jersey still aren’t smart enough to pump gas yet, but I that goes without saying.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com 

June Quick Throttle Column

So here is my column for June. As my publisher said: "A bit political and there were times you really moonwalked that line, but its still very good. You're saying what many are thinking even Trump supporters. I may hear a few gripes, but I'll hear more about how you are spot on." " Given the news lately I think this is even more relevant, and I'm feeling it more than ever. Enjoy.
A reader responded to last month’s column asking if biker lives were worth less than other lives telling me “gosh thanks for the downer read, I don’t wanna think about that when I’m out riding.” And I get it. We ride to escape from such stuff don’t we?  Maybe he’s right too – I shouldn’t be writing about such downer stuff, but sometimes you just can’t help it these days it seems.

It’s partly because I’m a “news junkie”. I read several newspapers (on line these days) each morning and more often than not I’ll have CNN on the TV in my office while I’m working, or pretending to work -- being that I’m mostly retired. It’s a holdover from my days as a lobbyist and political consultant and needing to know what was going on. But it’s getting increasingly difficult for me to do that. Reading the paper and watching the news is both depressing and aggravating these days, what with this tweeting President and his minions along with the twerps in Congress who can’t seem to find their way out of a paper bag. I dread turning on the TV or opening my iPad to read the paper. You’d think living in the sun and relaxing around my pool would keep my blood pressure low but I’ve had to go back on BP meds!

I’m worried. I’m concerned. I’m irritated. I’m worried about my health insurance. I’m worried if I can afford my taxes. I’m worried that the idiot running North Korea will do something stupid and send a missile to the west coast. (I’d be more worried if I were back in Seattle now since it’s a more strategic target than the desert here – sand and palm trees and swimming pools aren’t that much of a target, but I doubt they are very good at aiming anyway.) I worry that the rest of the world, that looks to the United States as a beacon of hope and light and intelligence, no longer will. I worry that I won’t be able to make it to the Sonic Drive In for a milk shake to calm my evening ice cream addiction before they close. But I worry more than anything that the country is becoming more divided and we aren’t talking with each other – but rather yelling at each other. Yes, I worry a lot.

And when the worrying gets to be too much, I do what probably all of you do as well. I go for a ride. But these days it’s also getting to be “too much” almost all of the time. As much as I’d love to live on the bike, I can’t. I can’t just take off and run away every day all day, tempting as it may be. I know it’s getting to be riding season in the Northwest. It’s always riding season here in the desert, unlike Seattle which has, from what I’ve heard from friends and seen in the paper, been suffering from the wettest year on record. As the Seattle HOG chapter’s motto says “Rain, what rain? Let’s ride!” If you are gonna ride in the northwest you are gonna get wet.  Here in the desert, we just worry about burning to a crisp. But even still I can’t ride away every day.
On a nice long ride, I can blank my mind and let it drift, and I’m only thinking about the ride. I don’t think about what the President is tweeting; what Congress is going to do to screw up my health insurance; whether or not the stock market is down and my IRA is running short. Out there on the bike, fists in the wind and an open road out in front of me, I don’t have to think about it and I can forget what’s going on. On a ride, all I need to do is think about what’s around the next curve ahead and which direction I’ll go at the next intersection, and if there’s someplace at the end I can get a good burger and beer at – and the answer to the latter is almost always “yes”.

We are lucky my friends. Lucky, we have the ability to escape – to go out and get some “throttle therapy” as it were. Take advantage of it when you can. Yeah we’ll have to face life when we get back – reality is always there waiting in the wings. But in the short term, we can let it go, and maybe, in a “zen” sort of way, it can teach us to “let it go” in the long run too. But I do have to ask, should we “let it go?” Do we risk becoming complacent with the overload of events and news and the perpetual state of angst we all seem to be in, regardless of what “side” one is on. How do we fix this?   How do we stop talking AT each other and start listening and talking WITH each other? I don’t know – maybe I’ll think about it on my next ride.

I do have faith in the basic goodness of this country and its institutions. I worked in it for so many years I know how resilient it is, and how the very nature of this country will prevent it from going off the cliff, even as we appear to be headed directly for it like Thelma and Louise in their convertible.  Yes, I do generally have faith in the American people and in the system. But it does sometimes takes longer than we like for things to resolve but goodness generally prevails in the end. Usually. Especially if we help nudge it along. So, take some time to listen – really listen – when you inevitably discus something with someone you don’t agree with. Don’t dismiss it, or them, just because you disagree. Talk about it, try to find common ground. It’s what will save our country. Now, time to go for a ride.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com 

May Quick Throttle Column

In the May issue I ask the question "Are biker lives worth less than others?" I was inpsired by an email from a reader who pointed out that in other countries if you cause a death in an accident you face a higher penalty than a minor traffic infraction ticket that you would get here. I think it's a valid point... Meanwhile I struggle with coming up for something for June -- due in 10 days!  Sigh...

Are biker lives worth less than any other victim of a vehicle accident?  I’m serious! It seems that way when it comes to prosecuting and punishing distracted drivers who cause accidents. Or maybe it’s my imagination. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. After last month’s column on the distracted driving bills in Washington, I had a reader drop me a note that theorized as to why the biker community has no interest in working on coalitions to advocate for the distracted driving proposals. My reader suggested that it’s because such laws are generally worthless because “seriously injuring or even killing a motorcyclist carries little penalty regardless of the cause.”

As I think about it, I fear he may be right.  How many times have we seen our fellow riders involved in terrible accidents caused by vehicle drivers, and the driver gets off with a minor infraction such as “inattentive driving” or “running a stop sign”? Meanwhile someone on a motorcycle is horribly injured or worse, killed. My reader tells of a riding buddy who has been crippled for life when a young woman made a left turn in front of him last year. She was written a “failure to yield” ticket and fined $188.

He points out that there is no interest on the part of police or prosecutors, to bring charges against careless drivers, even when the results of their carelessness are horrific injuries or death. It’s true, there are statutes already on the books to allow charging such drivers with vehicular manslaughter or vehicular assault – both criminal felonies that come with substantial jail time.

Is my reader right? He very well could be. It would be fascinating to dig up the statistics and research and compare how many times vehicle to vehicle accidents that result in significant injury or death bring higher charges beyond the traffic infraction compared to vehicle to motorcycle accidents. I have to wonder if sometimes police and prosecutors somehow feel motorcycle riders deserve the injuries they sustain in an accident because we ride a “dangerous vehicle”, as opposed to occupants in a car who are injured for the same reason. Prosecutors have ultimate discretion as to whether or not to file a charge, and what to charge a suspect with, and whether or not to accept a plea bargain.  They could choose to send a message by upping the charges in the cases of serious accidents where the driver of the vehicle is at fault and they seriously injure or kill a motorcycle rider. Apparently, they aren’t.  I can’t recall reading of a recent incident where they have.

Conversely, my reader points out, in Europe its different. If a driver hits or causes an accident with a motorcyclist or bicyclists, the penalties are more severe, and in Japan one can lose one’s license for life if convicted of negligent driving. Here it takes multiple convictions of DUI for someone to lose their license for life, and those are rare. No one loses a license for distracted or negligent driving, no matter how bad the accident or injuries.

So is this why we can’t get riders excited about supporting and advocating for the distracted driving bills? Perhaps. I know sometimes I sound like a broken record – urging the riding community to get behind proposed bills and policy that can actually do some good for us, but that aren’t exactly “biker specific” like helmet laws and lane-splitting. Working in conjunction with other groups on issues like gas taxes, road construction, and distracted driving can help us gain friends who would help down the road on issues that are more biker specific.   I spent nearly thirty years lobbying for various causes and clients, and rarely did we get anything done on our own without some sort of coalition building. You’d think after years of not getting any real headway on our biker specific issues, we would have learned by now.

I do think that the distracted driving bill that just passed the Washington legislature, and as I write this, waiting for the Governor to sign or veto it, will be helpful to a degree in the long run. It will take some time – perhaps a long time – to get people to change their behavior, and it doesn’t go into effect until January 1, 2019, a year and a half from now.  We’ve come a long way since the drunk driving legislation of the 80s as far as changing most folks behavior when drinking, but there will always be some who drive drunk. Lets hope this does the same for distracted drivers.

We have all become wedded to our electronic devices and we rarely put them down. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  I like the fact that the new law has more substantial definitions of what “distracted driving” is and what “using electronic devices” consists of. I like that the penalties are substantial, and double upon subsequent convictions, and that it is reported to insurance companies as the monetary penalties extracted by higher insurance premiums will be something that is a real deterrent.

But until prosecutors and police use the existing tools at their disposal – until they charge those who cause accidents and injuries with more substantial crimes such as vehicular homicide or assault, the impact of any distracted driving law will lessened – and maybe biker lives really are worth less than others.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com

Just In the Nick of Time

Not unlike a lonely, quiet, two-lane highway, there is something that is incredibly and romantically alluring, while at the same time quite sad, about a set of rusty, unused, and weed grown railroad tracks disappearing off into the horizon. They are all that remains of something once great, now forlorn and forgotten, rusting away and succumbing to the forces of nature. They draw me and make me want to walk down them, to find out why and what they were used for, and to imagine them in their heyday.
Out in the Mojave Desert East of Palm Springs – for a few more weeks anyway – are the remnants of the old Eagle Mountain Railroad. I first saw this rail line in February of 2014 -- the first winter I spent living here in the desert. I’d been out on my bike Angus photographing an abandoned gas station in Desert Center when I passed over the tracks on the I-10 overpass. I exited and circled back to look at the old rusty sagebrush choked line heading off towards the distant mountains. I had vaguely recalled something about an iron mine in the mountains here and figured that was the line to it. Later, I started doing some research and found that it was indeed the Eagle Mountain Railroad, built to haul iron ore from the Eagle Mountain mine down to what was then the Southern Pacific transcontinental mainline.  But it wasn’t until this spring when my best friend and fellow rust aficionado Dave Harmer came down from Salt Lake for a visit that I got to explore the Eagle Mountain in more detail.
What we found was not only fascinating but a great history lesson as well. And as it turns out, just in the nick of time, for earlier this month a rail scrap company began taking up the tracks of the Eagle Mountain. The Eagle Mountain Railroad was built in 1947-1948 to tap into a vast iron ore reserve in the Eagle Mountains and to fuel the huge steel mill that the great industrialist Henry Kaiser built in Fontana, California during WW II to provide steel for his shipbuilding enterprises. And like most research, one finds out things one wasn’t really looking for as one follows the research wherever it leads. Old Henry Kaiser was quite a guy – in the age when this country actually built giant projects and created big things other than software and smart phone apps. He started with a construction company that was part of the consortium that built Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams, went on to build the Colorado River Aqueduct, and then got into ship-building. To provide steel for the ships, he built a steel mill, to get iron and coal for the mill he bought mines and railroads. Later he bought aluminum smelters to provide aluminum for plane manufacturing. If one didn’t know better one might think he was a character from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In a way, maybe he was. Reading in her published journals, apparently, Rand came West to interview Kaiser and tour his facilities as she was writing Atlas Shrugged in the 1950s. Is it a coincidence that a main character in her novel is one Henry Reardon -- of Reardon Steel, Reardon Ore, Reardon Coal etc.?

(In an ironic and interesting “six degrees of separation” kind of connection, Kaiser’s Fontana mill got its coal from a mine at Sunnyside, Utah, along the now abandoned Carbon County Railroad – a line Dave and I had also explored some two years ago, and that was abandoned a couple of years before Eagle Mountain was.  You can read about it here: http://grgardner.livejournal.com/95813.html)

But we’ll have to leave Henry Kaiser’s accomplishments for another day. The Eagle Mountain Railroad was 51 miles long – running from a connection with the Southern Pacific at a place along the Salton Sea named “Ferrum Junction” (Latin for iron) – East and over the mountains to the Eagle Mountain Mine. It was built in two years and was one of the longest new rail construction projects of the century. The maximum gradient was 2.2 percent, and it had one long 500-foot trestle over the Salt Creek Wash as well as a few cuts and smaller bridges in it’s somewhat serpentine climb over the mountains to the mine.  In its heyday of the 1950s to the 1970s it would send two 100-car loaded ore trains west from the mine each day to the connection with the SP to be forwarded to the mill at Fontana, and bring back two empty trains a day left by the Southern Pacific. As steel production waned this tapered off in the late 1970s to one train a day and by the mid 80s it was down to one a week. After the mill closed in 1984 the railroad would gradually ship the stockpiled ore left at the mine out for sale overseas until it too was gone. The mine closed down, the town of Eagle Mountain became a modern ghost town, and the railroad stopped running.  The last train ran on March 24, 1986. The rails have been quiet since then.
So, on an early March morning we set out in the Hummer to explore what we could of the remains of this mining railroad that has sat unused out in the desert for thirty years now – slightly under half of its life. Here is Dave examining a washout on the railroad near the massive mine which you can see in the far horizon while my boyfriend Eric who joined in on his first foray into the odd world of Gary and Dave stuff is down in the wash looking at spikes and other rusty things.
That location is at the bottom of “Caution Hill”, so named because trains stopped here after coming down the grade from the mountain to cool their brakes. The tracks wander through the Mojave Desert for 51 miles and we were able to – with the traction of the trusty Hummer – follow along for a good 80% of it.  With no regular maintenance of the tracks or the culverts over the desert washes in the ensuing 30 years since the mine shut down there are numerous washouts caused by periodic heavy rains and flash floods. It’s a testament to the construction of this line, using very heavy rail, that despite the washouts the tracks are in relatively good condition considering.

The huge trestle at Salt Creek Wash still stands. This was the longest bridge on the railroad and carries the tracks over the main water channel coming down the West slope of the mountains.
Very little still exists at the end of the line – Ferrum Junction, where the Eagle Mountain connected with the former Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific, “Sunset Route” transcontinental mainline. There is a small maintenance shed, and a few storage tracks where trains of loads were left for the SP to pick up and trains of empties were returned by SP to be taken back up over the mountains to the mine for yet another load of ore.
When the Union Pacific did some major track work here a few years ago they, apparently unbeknownst to Kaiser who still owns the tracks, disconnected the Eagle Mountain from the interchange, so now the tracks just dead end and there is no connection to the national rail network anymore. Rail traffic has changed in the 80 years since the Eagle Mountain was built and the 30 years since it shut down. The old SP is gone; the Union Pacific has created a high-speed modern railway that hauls miles of stacked containers at 80 mph flying past Ferrum where now there isn’t even a connection to slow the passage of these trains.
And soon even these tracks will be gone. In late April, on a drive back to the desert from Phoenix, Arizona, Eric and I decided to loop off the freeway and go look at the old railroad again. Much to our surprise we found modified backhoes had been busy removing the tracks, starting at the fenced off ghost town of Eagle Mountain and working their way West. Upon walking the tracks further down the line, the crews had already come by and unbolted the rail connections and pulled up the spikes holding the rails to the ties.
It’s understandable that the corporate entity that remains of the old Kaiser empire which still owns the mine, the railroad, and the town would want to recoup some money from an asset that is rusting away out in the desert, and the rails certainly are that. The cost of repairing the line and making it usable far exceed any scrap value – and there is no reason to do it anyway. The business and regulatory climate these days will keep that from ever happening. At one time it was thought the mine pits could be used as a giant garbage dump for Los Angeles' trash which would be hauled by rail up to the mine, but that idea was quashed a few years ago. Pulling up the tracks and selling the rails for reuse or recycling makes more sense than letting them sit out in the desert. Wanting to document the old line one last time Eric and I ventured out into the desert again last weekend in the Hummer. In the short span of one week they had torn up a good 10 miles of track from the town Westward. The rails had been piled neatly along the right of way behind the advancing equipment, waiting for trucks to haul them to a big storage yard in Desert Center. They are moving fast. Too fast.

The work crews have even removed the ties and rails from the washout that Dave was standing on at the start of our exploration in March.

The mine and the town are abandoned now, except for the fencing around it and a few security guards. The huge scars and dumps of waste rock left on the land left from digging out the mountain will remain for eons, but that -- and maybe a lonely street sign or two -- will soon likely be the only visible signs left of the giant Kaiser empire, who’s name will live on in a few places. Places like Kaiser Permanente, the original Health Maintenance organization founded by Kaiser here at this location, and with his Kaiser Family Foundation which engages in philanthropic endeavors to this day (many of which are decidedly anti-capitalist and would be an affront to the great industrialist the foundation is named for, and again, eerily forshadowed in Atlas Shrugged as well.) The Fontana mill has been torn down and replaced by a NASCAR race track, and steelmakeing itself and ship building has all but ended in this country. And geneiss of all that – the mine, and the railroad that hauled the ore, will one day vanish in the desert winds too.

It’s been more than 30 years since a train like the one below, with it's handsome red locomotoves proudly lettered for "Kaiser Steel -- Eagle Mountian Mine" hauled a hundred or so cars of iron ore that have been dug out of the mountain behind it -- crossing over a bridge that is there to protect the Colorado River Aqueduct burried underneath from the vibrations of the heavy loads. The aqueduct, an amazing engineering feat itself built in the 1930s, is also a product of Henry Kaiser -- he built it for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District.  It was designed by William Mulholand, and built by Henry Kaiser's firm some 15 years before the railroad was laid and the mine in production. (photo by Craig Walker, RailPictures.net)
Now the last things to roll over this bridge will be the tractors and loaders removing the rails and ties -- and maybe a lizard or an errant desert wanderer will walk over it sometime if it too isn’t removed by the salvagers.

Once they finish taking up the tracks and the machines all leave, the desert will start to reclaim the landscape, and in another 20 years any sign of the Eagle Mountain Railroad will be gone – save maybe the lonely railroad crossing sign that marked where the tracks once crossed the road. This spot -- where giant ore trains once blew their horns to warn passing motorists as they rolled past on their way to and from the mine, hauling the minerals that built this country -- and which it no longer needs since it no longer builds the giant dams, roads, bridges, and projects that required mines and railways out here in the wilds of the Mojave Desert. It will soon all be a ghost, with few clues or signs as to what was once here. All in all, it all makes me sad.
In my head I understand why they are taking up the tracks, but in my heart I want them to remain.  I want to return to the desert years from now -- to see and to touch the steel -- to imagine loaded ore trains rumbling through the landscape. I want them to remain as a reminder of what once was -- of the power of man to literally move mountains and to dream big. With the rails gone and the roadbed reclaimed by the desert, in the future no one will know what once was here, no one will remember, and there will be nothing to rekindle the glory and the testament to the brilliance and to pay homage to the ego of mankind and what was created -- and which has since faded and soon will disappear like the railroad in the desert. I'm glad I saw it -- just in the nick of time.