Common Tread

Golden State on the Raspberry Starship: Wandering with my old man

Sep 18, 2017

“I don’t like the look of the big wheel," said my father. "It’s not classic. It’s not an Indian.”

He was referring to the 19-inch front wheel on the 2017 Indian Chieftain Elite I had already decided to name the Raspberry Starship. It was a big, beautiful, American V-twin with chrome on top of chrome, custom sparkle paint, a seven-inch touchscreen navigation system and more speakers than your high school girlfriend’s Saturn. Ostentatious is an understatement.

2017 Indian Chieftain Elite
Subtle it is not. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

My father decided that for our latest trip he'd ride the 2017 Indian Chieftain with the skirted front wheel and a two-tone, black-over-silver paint scheme. Classic.

Indian Chieftains
Silver and black with the traditional fender or flaming red with bells and whistles? Choose your Indian. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

The first time we played this game — a father-son motorcycle trip — we spent a month in Mexico, wandering our way south on dual-sports. That was the first time my old man had been on a bike since 1972. True story. Since then however, we’ve managed a handful of other trips, from the Pacific Northwest to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

This time, the idea was to ride Route 66. Pick up these big, beautiful things outside of Los Angeles and head east, rumbling our way down the Great American Highway, stopping at silly roadside attractions, or whatever. But about a week before we were ready to depart, I had to bring a bike from Phoenix to Los Angeles by way of Interstate 10, then from Los Angeles to Seattle on Interstate 5. Both rides tested my willingness to be on a bike again. Ever. With temperatures similar to those on the surface of the sun, I spent most of my time emptying cold water bottles into my pants and pounding electrolyte drinking products. It was awful.

on the road
On the road with my father. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

When I reached Seattle, and told this tale to my old man over a cold pint poured at our local place, he shook his head with that "No way am I going through that, too" kind of enthusiasm. So, a new plan was hatched. A cooler plan.

If I’m being honest, I don’t know much about California save for the coastline. Palm Springs — yea, got that. But the mountain range that runs down the middle, ya know, the Sierras. Nope.

my father
Photo by Justin W. Coffey.
My father had spent his post-high school years hitch-hiking up and down the west coast and had an idea: howsabout we head to this little ghost town on the east side of the Sierra Mountains? A destination, that’s what we needed. And since Google provided stimulating pictures and a copy of Butler Maps’ Southern California edition helped us sort out how we’d get there, we were good to go – in theory. Along the way we planned to check out China Peak, a quaint mountain resort where an event aimed at scrambler-style motorcycle owners was being held that coming weekend. We’d then loop back on the good roads, dragging our feet and biding our time until the City of Angels swallowed us whole. But first we had to get out of L.A. And my father hadn’t split a lane in his life.

Headset communications devices can save your life. They can provide turn-by-turn navigation, music on demand, and let you listen to your old lady go on about the scenery and stuff. They can also make you crazy. The kind of crazy you get when you listen to someone call out all the obstacles, obstructions and "oh shit" moments on your motorcycle ride. Like a really bad backseat driver, only, in your helmet, and, also your father. You picking up what I’m putting down?

The last time we did this, Kyra and I set the old guy up with a SENA 10S so that we could keep tabs on each other as we wandered up the East Coast. We learned our lesson. No SENA this time. Navigating DTLA on an Indian Chieftain Elite with your father in tow is stressful enough. Add the anecdotes and expletives that were streaming from his face, and the whole experience would be downright dangerous. Er, more dangerous.

But the old bastard was there every time I checked my mirror. The front-end of his Indian filling my chrome teardrop. Occasionally I’d get ahead of myself, turn up the music and give the old guy the bird — disappearing into a chasm of silver sedans and inattentive landscape architects. But when I’d apply the brakes and look back, I could see him muscling that monster between cars and trucks, making his way, as he should.

riding California
Riding California. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Out of L.A., we put on the pipes and made up for lost time. We stopped for dinner with friends from the Veterans Charity Ride, who are doing amazing stuff, so look them up. The next morning, we made more miles – following the floral-lined Highway 99 to Fresno where we ate tacos and answered obvious questions about our bikes. The scrambler thing at China Peak was our next destination. That two-night sojourn turned into a chance encounter with a few fellow Indian enthusiasts, one of which owns a mint 1948 Chief (add a bold OK emoji here). Among the scramblers, the hill climb would have been a righteous undertaking aboard my beautiful Raspberry Starship, but the late-night campfire shenanigans and tall tales at the bar made up for anything I missed.

Old Chief and new Chief
A 1948 Indian Chief and its 2017 distant great-grandson. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

The morning we were scheduled to depart, though, the weather took a turn. For the last few days we’d been blissful in our 70-something surroundings, at elevation, avoiding all the excessive heat. But a cold front had come in, dropping the daily average to just about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. We consulted the Great Google, who told us our Ghost Town was even worse. Turns out it’s notorious for being the coldest place in California. Go figure. So, with weather rolling in, and even worse things over our proverbial horizon, we pow-wowed.

Cold is the kind of thing you can endure. Add layers. Stop often. A warm cup of coffee and something in your stomach so your system kicks into gear. Hot, however, is the sort of shit that just kills you. Water, obviously, but there’s only so much you can handle. So my argument went.

“We can make it," I said, urging him on. "It’s not thaaaaaat cold.”

"Bullshit," decreed my dad. And on that note, we set our sights on Cambria, a small coastal town just south of Big Sur. I’d been, and had told him about it, so he was eager to see it for himself. And the coast would be cool, not freezing. But before the coast was this big, empty thing called The Middle of California. And it was hot.

As it turns out, I was wrong. I often am. The central section of California which we dissected on our Indians all afternoon was some of the most beautiful country I’ve ridden across. The Golden State it is. Hills rolled out in front of us like area rugs your kids have been roughhousing on. Green quickly turned to gold, then, gold turned into an iridescent blue when the sea came into sight. We hit the ocean, took a few photos and then turned north toward town. We settled in, pulled out our map and decided on our next destination: Ventura, by way of Ojai. Highway 33.

When you’re traveling with friends or family, you make exceptions. Sure, take the room with the TV, and the hot tub and the full bath and king-size bed. Yea, I’ll sleep out here on the fold-out. No problem.

on the coast
Too cold in the mountains? Too hot in the valley? New plan: Make a run for the coast. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

You especially make these exceptions when said family member is your father, and he’s got his Tony Soprano thing going on. I’d have slept on the floor, because the house we rented in Ventura was a prime cut of meat in a ground beef kind of town. I said hot tub, right? Two nights wasn’t enough. We wandered Main Street, drank too many Mai Tais with the woman who built the Batmobile (fact), ate late-night ice cream and just generally had good times.

The things you'll remember along the ride. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.
The end of this story starts sort of the same way it began. Me, staring shamelessly at the Raspberry Starship parked outside of some place we’ve rented, wondering why I like the damn thing so much. But here’s where things get interesting. After swapping seats from Ojai to Ventura, allowing the old guy to ride my ripe-fruit-colored candy machine, I heard something I was sure I wouldn’t.

“I think I’d rather have the 19-inch wheel.” Whaaaat?! Blasphemy. Bullshit! But it was her nimble nature and graceful corner entry that convinced the Old Guard. He could not care less about the flashy paint and extra audio equipment, but the way she worked is what he liked, and that’s how it should be, yea?

Be mindful of the image, ride a Raspberry Starship. But please, make sure it works. Make sure it motorcycles like it should.