A second bad omen for a risky journey

posted: August 13, 2022

tl;dr: California tried its best to deter us, but we persevered...

One of the goals of the motorcycle trip I took with a buddy after we graduated from college was to ride up the coast of California on Pacific Coast Highway-1 (PCH-1), widely acknowledged as the most scenic, thrilling, and potentially dangerous road in the United States. We would be doing it south to north, meaning we were riding on the mountain-side of the road as opposed to the cliff-side, which reduced the danger factor a little.

Aside from a brief layover in the Los Angeles airport on the way to Hawaii for a family vacation a few years prior, I had not spent any time at all in California. I grew up in the Northeast United States, as did my buddy, and my family never visited California. California, as anyone who grew up outside the state knows, has an almost mythic image in the mind of young Americans, due to the images we see in television and movies. In that timeframe it was portrayed as just like the rest of America except with beautiful people, fabulous beaches, and sunny weather. As a computer engineer, I was already well-acquainted with the mystique of Silicon Valley. So I was very much looking forward to seeing the state myself for the first time.

We were in Las Vegas, headed to the Los Angeles area to pick up PCH-1. We avoided interstates the entire trip, but there are not too many options to get from Las Vegas to Los Angeles: I-15 it would have to be. It was the middle of summer and we knew we’d be traveling through the hot desert near Death Valley on air-cooled motorcycles, so we decided, for the only time on the entire trip, to ride that leg in the wee hours of the night. We waited in Las Vegas, which has plenty of diversions, until the sun went down and it turned dark and cooled off a bit, and then set off for the Golden State.

An anthropomorphized red tractor trailer truck briefly falls asleep on a deserted road at night and then wakes up with a start

I know this feeling

I remember crossing the border into California around midnight and seeing a sign for San Bernardino, which was a location I had heard about from TV and movies. Not knowing much about the geography of California, especially how big San Bernardino County is, I thought we were fairly close to Los Angeles. We weren’t. The miles dragged on. There was hardly any traffic, which is what we wanted, but it made the road even more monotonous. It was very dark, the only illumination came from our headlights, and there were no landmarks or buildings. Years later, when I saw the movie Cars and the scene where the Lightning McQueen’s trailer truck Mack is crossing a lonely desert road at night and starts falling asleep, I knew exactly how Mack felt. Falling asleep on a motorcycle can be deadly, needless to say. I suggested to my buddy over our walkie-talkie helmet communicators that we pull over at the next available opportunity and take a rest. He agreed.

We took an exit ramp off I-15 in the middle of nowhere. The exit ramp was paved, and it led to an overpass over I-15, but aside from the overpass, the road that the exit was for was a dirt road. I had no idea why they built an exit on I-15 there; maybe they were planning on future expansion, or maybe there was a rancher with a lot of political pull. There was nothing around us, apparently, other than this dirt road that we parked alongside, and scrub desert. My buddy pretty quickly went to sleep in the saddle of his bike. I didn’t think I would be able to sleep, so I was just spacing out, staring into the black nothingness.

All of a sudden there was a roar and the ground started shaking. Between the noise and the shaking, it felt as though a high-speed freight train had come out of nowhere and was speeding past us not more than 10 feet away. Had we misjudged our immediate surroundings due to the darkness and parked right next to train tracks? Were we in danger? I was frantically looking around, trying to spot the train or any clue as to where we were and what was going on. I could see nothing.

Finally, after what was probably 30 seconds or so, just as the roaring and shaking stopped, I realized what was going on. It was an earthquake. My buddy and I had not been in California for more than a few hours and we were already in our first major earthquake. We decided that we were a bit lucky, as we were parked while it happened. Who knows what it would have been like to be riding a motorcycle during the earthquake?

This is one of the few times on the entire trip where, looking back, I can place myself in space and time, because there is a Wikipedia entry about the 1986 North Palm Springs earthquake. I’ve done my best to describe where we were, which was not too far from the epicenter of the quake. The time was 2:20am on July 8, 1986.

The earthquake was not at all a bad omen. We had a great time in California, and the trip up PCH-1 was as spectacular as we had hoped, except for the very beginning. We got on PCH-1 in the Los Angeles metro area, which meant we had about 70 miles of stop lights before we got to Malibu and it turned into the road that everyone raves about. I’ve since experienced other earthquakes in California, and also Oregon. But, as the expression goes, you never forget your first.

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