Thursday, February 14, 2002

Do it in the dirt

It was January and I was sitting at work with a computer in front of my face. I was soon distracted by the sound of rain ricocheting off the glass of my office window. The sound was distinct. It reminded me of the frantic clawing of an animal trying to escape its terrarium. This stirred my desire to escape the seemingly endless deluge of precipitation that starts in November and continues though February.
Despite the fact that I grew up on the east coast where the winters are long, cold and miserable, this prolonged soaking was taking its toll on me. My thoughts about hookers in insulated knee-socks faded by late December. In early January I was lusting for sun-drenched babes in string bikinis with their with pert tits and pointy nipples poking at my eyes. And now, in the closing days of the month, I was considering a plan to surgically transform Girl Wonder into a curvaceous, mammary-enhanced centerfold laying spread-eagle on a sandy beach where I would hump her until my ass developed skin cancer.

Even though it seems that my moral compass had been set too close to a vaginal magnet, the truth of the matter is that I was craving the sun and all the frolicking that comes with it. I turned back to my open browser, which was conveniently located on I thought for a moment. What will I search for... Sex or motorcycles? Once again, motorcycles overpowered my libido. Instead of surfing for nude beaches in South Florida, my desires had been sublimated by some two-wheeled fantasy. I had to add some dirt to the mix to make it interesting. I typed three words and the name of a city into the search field: DIRT BIKE RENTALS, SAN DIEGO. Near the top of the results list was California Motorsport Adventours.

I clicked on the link and began reading about three days of riding at the Glamis Sand Dunes. Too long. Then there was the one-day, Quad riding, lobster-eating trip to the Cantamar Sand Dunes in Mexico. I had lived in Boston long enough to be sick of lobster, and I thrive on two-wheeled fun, not four. And then there was the one-day tour in the mountains of Southern California. Bingo. Considering the fact that I haven't been on a dirt bike in 22 years, the Laguna Mountain Tour seemed to be perfect. I would be able to ride in the sun with Girl Wonder, I could take it easy and try to keep my spine in one piece, and they provided everything we would need, including a guide.

The price of the package was $175 per person. It included transportation to and from Pine Valley, a Honda XR 400, a full tank of fuel, riding gear, instructions and someone to lead us around. I called them up and asked for available dates. The weekend of February 15th was clear, so I made the reservation for Girl Wonder and I, booked a flight and marked my calendar with the words "escape."

I called up Girl Wonder and informed her that we were going to take a little tour in Southern California. I explained the whole dirt bike thing and told her that it would help her get over her fear of riding on gravel. "But I never have ridden za dirt bike before – they are very tall and I cannot touch za ground." "No problem," I assured her. "Besides, there will be a guide and he will give you some training." She reluctantly agreed... as if she really had a choice in the matter.

February came quickly, and we soon found ourselves in San Diego. We spent most of our time stuffing ourselves with shredded beef and bean burritos and as many award-winning marguaritas as we could tolerate. Getting liquored up was essential since we were staying at the luxurious Motel 6 in El Cajone. The hotel was full of lifers who had obviously been evicted from an Oakie trailer park To the left of our stark and barren room was Billy Bob, a representative of the nouveau white-trash mini monster truck crowd. Everytime someone passed his jacked up Toyota pickup, a synthesized voice would say, "Step away from the vehicle!" This would unleash a cacophony of barking from the dogs locked in the room to our right. And living above us was some kind of super stud who had obviously overdosed on Viagra and was manically humping the box springs. For hours we listened to non-stop squeaking and creaking, but strangely there were no other sounds penetrating the paper-thin walls. I figured that Tom Bodet had been given a free room to keep him from jerking off in public and he was now upstairs pounding one of the local strippers into a dry, crusty pulp. Surely she'd be screaming after the first hour of machine-gun fornication. Nope. Not a sound, other than the springs. I began to think that maybe she had split after empting his wallet and our sex machine of a neighbor hadn't realized it yet – or worse, she was now a cadaver ready for embalming. Needless to say, it was damned difficult to get a good night's sleep at this place.

Sunday morning, after loading up on huevos rancheros, we sped North on Interstate 8 for a full sixty seconds and then took the first exit in Santee. I turned on the radio only to be rewarded with bad news. The weather forecast promised to replicate, as closely as possible, the very climate we were trying to escape from in Seattle, albeit a tad warmer. We got to CMA's building about 9:15 and swung open the door to find Phillip, an almost stereotypical California surfer/snow-border/desert rider type, complete with wild shoulder length hair and a relaxed enthusiasm that can only come from years of mastering a combination of adrenalin-inducing activities and smoking lots of reefer. He was smiling an enormous smile and extended his hand. "Hi, I'm Phillip, are you ready to ride?" he asked. "Oh yeah," I replied, as I shook his mit. "You need to sign these forms so that if I take you out and kill you can't sue me," he chuckled. Girl Wonder looked nervous, but she signed the forms. These kind of releases are always amusing to me. They are very much like a software license agreement – if you don't click on "agree" you don't get to play. I signed too, and wondered how many people have ever read the fine print.

We walked through the back of the building into a large garage area. Phillip told us to pick out any gear that we needed. We grabbed jerseys, riding pants, knee pads and a kidney belt. We both decided to use our own helmets, gloves and boots, but we could have shown up naked and would have left looking like supercross stars. They truly had a lot of gear available, but nothing for rain, of course. Fortunately we had brought some of our own.

We piled into a truck loaded with three dirt bikes and a ramp. Since CMA does not accept credit cards, Phillip drove us to an ATM so that I could lock my account by withdrawing the daily limit. With $350 now in his Acerbis jacket, Phillip headed for the mountains.

The drive to the ORV area would take 45 minutes to an hour, so Phillip kept us entertained with stories about mutilated riders. In the middle of his story about the poor sod he had to cart back from Mexico after he did a complete ground-loop and spectacularly broke his back, I pictured myself lying in the desert with several vertebrae poking through my skin and a small flock of vultures pecking at my eyeballs. That Mexican Lobster tour looked a whole lot less appealing when I considered the total lack of an emergency support network.

Since we were on the subject of mangled backs, I mentioned my own twisted spine. It turns out that Phillip also suffers from several herniated discs. He didn't say how it happened, but with 25 years of dirt biking in the desert I assumed that he had thumped one too many cacti.

Phillip appears to have spent his entire life in a circle whose circumference can be plotted by connecting dots placed on Palm Springs, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego and Northern Mexico. After spending enough time in the kind of desert heat that turns your face into a super-sized slab of beef jerky, he had moved to San Diego. Across the street from his new digs lived Sven, the German transplant who owns CMA. They began riding together and the rest is history.

The closer we got to our destination, the foggier it became. This fog was punctuated by a light rain. We exited the highway and found ourselves in ORV heaven. Phillip quickly stripped down to his underwear and starting putting on his gear. "I am au-natural," he quipped to Girl Wonder with a big grin on his face. We joined in the quick change and then watched Phillip wrestle the bikes off the truck. He started the little mud beasts up, which took quite a bit of work given their cold-blooded nature. One by one the bikes thundered to life.

Phillip seemed eager to get underway, so we climbed aboard our Hondas. Since GW had no previous off-road experience, she got the bike with the best throttle and grip guards. Phillip gave us one instruction: don't go wide in blind turns or you risk being hit by on-coming ORVs. "Man, I am stoked about riding in the rain... this is totally crazy!" he exclaimed. Phillip snicked his bike into first and wheelied off. We cautiously followed.

The first part of the trail system was an actual dirt road, but the terrain in the San Diego area is never just dirt. It has more rocks mixed in than the surface of the moon -- rocks the size of golf balls, rocks the size of avacados, and rocks the size of a school bus. I stood up on the pegs for stability and looked back at Girl Wonder to see her white-knuckling the handle bars and looking altogether terrified. She must have been convinced that I deliberately planned this torturous ride so that she would lose control of the bike, careen into the abyss and wind up as a limbless wad of flesh never to be seen again until some future archeological dig discovered "Lucy II."

Phillip, on the other hand, was riding up the embankments, switching direction midway and then cutting a track in the dirt with his spinning rear knobby. Girl Wonder and I were riding pitifully slow and he was obviously trying to shake off the boredom. After a half-mile of suffering, he stopped us to see how we were doing. Girl Wonder wanted to know what the hell she was supposed to do to keep the bike in some state that remotely resembled control. Phillip's advice was simple: let the bike do what it wants and just try to stay on top of it. Frankly, I was amazed that she was sticking with it. I had never ridden anything so rocky before and I wasn't having an easy time of it either -- especially since the rain and fog had reduced our visibility to 50 feet or so. Not only that, between the drizzle outside and the fog that was forming inside our helmets, our face-shields were making things worse. Girl Wonder and I both started riding with them up, hoping to not be hit in the puss by some geomorphic projectile.

After a brief rest, Phillip decided that we weren't being challenged enough so he veered off the main road and onto a series of tight trails. Girl Wonder was now facing a slalom of panty-twisting corners -- one after the other -- with rocks, boulders, mud and elevation changes thrown in for shits and giggles. Phillip's advice must have triggered a personal epiphany for her, though, because no matter how tight or technical the trails were, she refused to be stopped by the conditions. Only twice did she take turns too wide, which caused her to ride off the trail. With tree branches and bushes whacking her left and right, her face-shield slammed shut leaving her blind. She just stayed on the throttle and let her intuition guide her way through the brush until she was able to lift the obstruction. The second time this happened she became lodged in some bushes and wiped out. She simply righted the bike and said, "Get zis thing started for me."

I was also getting comfortable. Inspired by Phillip's antics, I was power-sliding through corners with complete confidence on the well-balanced Honda. The motor was wonderfully torquey and delivered its power in a completely predictable manner. Even when we were riding uphill on waterlogged clay -- conditions that resulted in sudden and unexpected direction changes -- the bike was easy to direct with a little body-english.

In the late afternoon the trails were becoming dangerously muddy for inexperienced hacks such as ourselves. I watched some eager dirt bike fashion model go sideways and slam her big Suzuki down in a slithering pile of muck. She pulled herself out from under the frame and stood in a prone position for a good ten minutes while trying to shake off the pain. Inspired by her misfortune, we decided to call it a day.

Phillip had spent the previous day performing stunts on sand dunes for an Italian film crew. He was a bit sore, and now he was drenched, muddy and cold. I think he was relieved that the day was ending. He complemented us on our spirit of adventure, saying that most of their clients would never have considered riding in those conditions. He also praised Girl Wonder's relentless drive to keep going no matter how difficult the trails were.

As we were heading back to San Diego, the weather cleared. The area we were riding in came to life with a magnificent display of color. My legs were feeling sore, but otherwise I felt great. It was a tremendous experience, even with the Seattle-esque weather that could have easily dampened our spirits.

The rest of the day would be spent loading up on more of those award winning margaritas. We would eat our last shredded beef and bean burritos and later attempt to slip into a food coma so that our Oakie hotel-mates would fade into the din of El Cajone. As my head hit the pillow that evening, something occurred to me: I haven't had lobster in quite a while, but I think I know a good place South of the border...