There’s a first time for everything, including dealing with Los Angeles traffic. But most people manage it better than I did when I collected one of the original six-cylinder GoldWings from American Honda in Gardena. I was straight off the plane. Mrs Bear was at a tourism conference in Century City, and I was going to ride the bike up there to meet her at her hotel, the Intercontinental. I had worked out a route, more or less just straight up I 405.
There was 18 miles to Century City, I had a full tank of gas, I was on a GoldWing, it was peak hour, and I was wearing sunglasses. What could go wrong?
Redondo Beach Boulevard took me across to 405, but when I rolled onto the freeway I found that I had joined a car- and motorcycle-park. Traffic was so slow that I had plenty of time to drag out my map (this was 1988, with paper maps) to plan an alternative. I have no idea why I thought an alternative would be better somehow, but this was my first day in Los Angeles – ever.
The next exit led to a long, straight road called Hawthorne Boulevard, which seemed to lead north most of the way up to my goal. I powered into the off ramp. It wasn’t long before I discovered why Angelenos preferred the freeway.
Hawthorne appeared to lead through a dystopian wasteland. I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as bad as it seemed to me, unaccustomed as I was to the back blocks of Los Angeles. But it was terrifying to me. There were smashed windows, burnt-out buildings and weed-covered empty lots, and every street corner seemed to have its gathering of really scary-looking blokes. Who appeared quite interested in my bike. Too interested. I prayed for green lights as I covered block after seemingly endless block. Finally there was a sign back to 405. I turned into the Imperial Highway and then rejoined the crush on the freeway. All those stationary cars felt like friends.
Yes, I know that it couldn’t really have been that bad. But it sure seemed like it at the time…
These days I enjoy riding in LA, always assuming that I can do it outside peak hours. If you have a spare day at LAX, which I have found is not at all an unusual experience as flights fail to connect up, you could do a lot worse than to rent a bike and head off to explore. Quite a few motorcycle rental companies vie for your buck close by the airport; my preference is EagleRider; I’m used to them. I should mention that they give me a discount as a journalist. It’s a twenty buck cab ride to their office from LAX. See www.eaglerider.com/losangeles for details.
If you just feel like drifting around and picking up a bit of that LA vibe, just head down to Venice Beach. It’s practically next to the airport, and if you get bored you can take Pacific Avenue up towards Santa Monica. Along the way is the Hotel California, and the end of Route 66. It’s only a small monument, but there’s a certain sense of achievement in reaching the end of the Mother Road. Further up is Santa Monica Pier with its many attractions.
Inland from Santa Monica is Hollywood and a collection of museums including Petersens Automotive Museum, which also offers a lot of motorcycles – some of them so amazing that they hardly seem real. Definitely worth a look, and you can score free parking downstairs if you squeeze your bike in. It’s not far up Fairfax to the farmers Market, a favourite (and cheap) place to sample a variety of cuisines.
One problem with Los Angeles is not so much that it’s large, but just how large it is. Despite that you can get out of town and sample some excellent corners without traffic. To the west are the Santa Monica Mountains, and Topanga Canyon offers good riding. If you’re really keen, head east instead to La Canada and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond. State Highway 2 will take you up into the Angeles National Forest, and there are plenty of side roads and tracks; perhaps not ideal on a Harley, but a BMW will take you a long way up here. State Highway 39, up past Morris and Gabriel Reservoirs from Azusa offers some terrific riding.
Got a couple of days? Follow 2 through the San Gabriels to its junction with 138 and then across to I 15. Here you’ve got the option of turning south to San Bernardino and taking either State 18 or 330 up to Big Bear Lake – both are spectacular – or turning north to Victorville where the other end of 18 will take you to Lucerne Valley. Here you can pick up 247, Old Woman Springs Road, which will take you down to Yucca Valley. The ride is amazing – you’re in the upper Mojave Desert and it sure looks like it. I think there’s fuel at Landers. Stay overnight at Joshua Tree – I like the Joshua Tree Inn, www.joshuatreeinn.com. Try to book Room 8, filled with Gram Parsons memorabilia. It’s the room where he overdosed. Donovan used to stay there too, but he left alive.
The next day you’ve got the wonderful Joshua Tree National Park to explore. You can look out over the San Andreas Fault from Keys View, and then drift back to LA on I 10.