back to calistoga trip

May 26, 2001

The night before riding to Calistoga, I felt like a 5-year-old on Christmas Eve. I had gone to bed early with that childish hope that it would make the dawn arrive more quickly. I was thrilled to be taking this trip for many reasons: it was to be the longest ride I'd done so far (approximately 300 miles round-trip), and I was going to travel with four other amazing women. We're all members of the Short Bikers mailing list, and while I've exchanged emails with all four women during the year and a half I've been on the list, I'd only previously met two in person. We could have been organizing a trip to the grocery store, and I'd have been jumping up and down; these are the types of women that role models are made of. Everyone has her own story: Tai rode 5300 miles from the San Francisco Bay Area to Illinois and back for the Pony Express Round-up 2000; Cat races her motorcycles, and works at the tracks when she's not riding. Me, I just love to ride whenever and wherever I can. Many times on my way home from somewhere, I've thought wistfully, "I could do this all day." This trip was going to be the proof to myself that yes, in fact, I could.

When morning finally came, I bounced out of bed as energetically as a non-morning person can reasonably expect, tossed a sweatshirt into my tank bag, pulled on a T-shirt and my armored leather pants, and headed off to meet the other two women from the South Bay for breakfast. After caffeinating, Cat and Kim and I rode up through the Silicon Valley peninsula towards San Francisco. Naturally, I'd forgotten to actually wear the sweatshirt that I'd brought, and so I was a bit cold and miserable as we hit the fog-covered section of the peninsula from Pacifica up toward the northern point of San Francisco. At some point near Pacifica, we picked up a Yamaha R1 rider out for a spin with his girlfriend. He rode in staggered formation with us for a while, but apparently decided that we were too slow, as he sped up ahead of us as we entered San Francisco. Riding through the city was an accomplishment for me as well; I hate driving my car in the city, and will go to great lengths to assure that I'm a passenger rather than chauffeur. Riding my own motorcycle across the Golden Gate Bridge, then, put a smile on my face which widened considerably when it became obvious that we'd left the fog and clouds behind on the south end of the Bridge. We rode into Marin County under sunny skies.

Our meeting place was the Marin County Civic Center, in San Rafael. To make life interesting, the parking lot was on a steep horizontal slope; this forced the bikes to be parked almost straight up-and-down, and we all laughed and performed acrobatics while climbing off our bikes. Lots of "hellos" and hand shaking and "so that's what you look like!"s ensued as the rest of us put faces to the mailing list names. Once we were assembled, it was easy to see how diverse we were. We were all different ages and our gear ranged from jeans to Aerostich suits to full one-piece armored custom leathers. And the bikes! Kim's bike was the oldest; she rides a wonderful '90 Honda CB-1. Jody has a '96 Yamaha Seca; Cat was borrowing a friend's '00 Honda CBR600F4 while her plethora of bikes were in various stages of disarray. Tai has a gorgeous, bright-yellow '00 Triumph Sprint RS, and I was riding my '01 Suzuki SV650S. We made quite a group!

We fueled up and were on our way. Tai led us out of Marin and towards the Sears Point raceway. I always forget how closely snuggled up it is to the northern tip of the Bay; every once in a while, I caught a glimpse of blue through the rolling hills. At the raceway, we turned due north and then east to head over towards Napa. Even though I've lived in northern California for a couple of years now, I'd never been in the wine country before. I was surprised at how varied the scenery is -- after Marin's green hills, the land flattens out, and if it wasn't for the mountains off in the distance, I could have easily pretended I was riding through the Midwestern plains that I grew up in. This was easy riding; the two-lane highway cut through the vineyards in slow, lazy curves. I was riding third out of five, which was perfect for me. Tai was an excellent leader, and she kept us all together at a good pace. As we entered Napa, we pulled in line behind a seemingly endless line of tourists. We plodded along in the stop-and-go traffic long enough for Tai to start smacking her hand against her helmet and shaking her fist in mock anger at the cars in front of us. It seemed that we hit every red light in Napa, and we were all grateful to take the Imola Road cut-off towards the Silverado Trail after a few miles.

The Silverado Trail gets pretty twisty in places, and the five of us split up for a little while. This was one reason that I really appreciated making this journey with fellow women -- I never felt any pressure to maintain another rider's speed, and I knew that if I got too far behind, the leaders would pull over and wait for me. And this is exactly what happened. I took my time through the twisties: not dallying, but spending more time trying to lean correctly than seeing how fast I could go. As I was unfamiliar with the area, I was nervous and braked into corners more than I'd like to admit. Tai and Jody quickly zipped out of sight as I practiced my "Look! Lean! Roll!" skills. Kim and Cat were behind me, so I took comfort in the fact that they couldn't all lose me completely. As I pulled up to a fork in the road and saw no Tai or Jody, I knew that I had to go straight, since they would have waited if we'd needed to turn. Sure enough, as I passed over the next crest, there they were on the side of the road, waiting. "We just wanted to make sure you didn't get worried!" they laughed, and we all hung out and waited there for the other two. I took a couple of pictures of us near the vineyards that lined the Trail, and then we headed off again. We stopped shortly at a gas station to rest the bikes and ourselves. Due to the gorgeous weather, we were joined at the rest area by quite a few pickup trucks hauling large boats on trailers. One woman loitering near one of these trucks looked us over and said, "out for a ride with the girls, huh?" We heartily agreed. She gave us one of those "I think that's good, but I'm not really sure what to make of you" smiles and disappeared into the gas station. When it was time to go, I pushed my bike out of the shade that it was parked under, and, not paying any attention to what I was doing, lowered my sidestand directly into a gravel-filled pothole. The next thing I know, the bike had knocked me over, and a nearby male rider had run over to pick the bike off of me. My friends grinned when they saw me laughing, completely unhurt and without a scratch on the bike. It turns out I'd dropped it so that my foot went right into the SV650S's side air intake hole and got stuck. It was good for a laugh.

The rest of the ride to Calistoga was uneventful. The twisties gave way to gorgeous sweeping curves along hillsides and next to large ponds and small lakes. Tai, who knew where she was going, kept up a good clip, but Jody hung back a little bit for me this time, so that I always had her (if not both her and Tai) in view. This was a nice gesture, which, if nothing else, improved the scenery for me -- it was wonderful to always be able to look up and see a fellow woman rider zipping through a curve. I decided that I needed a little gnome to sit on my shoulder and take pictures for me while I rode, so that I could capture the scenery with my friends on the road with me. I might have to settle for a camcorder.

We pulled into the spa parking lot in Calistoga at exactly 1:30pm, right on time for our "treatments." I was thrilled when I found out that Tai and I had signed up for the same things, because I was looking forward to getting to know her a bit better. We all shrugged off our helmets and gear (bestowing them upon the befuddled spa staff), and settled into the waiting room to await our turns. Apparently a gaggle of giggling motorcycle-riding women wasn't usual weekend fare at the spa, as the staff had to ask us to "please be quiet in the waiting room" quite a few times. Ah well, we were all a little stir-crazy from riding 150 miles, and we were the only ones in the room.

Tai and I headed off for our mineral bath and "blanket treatment." We relaxed in the jacuzzi for a little while, before being hustled into a separate room for our blanket wrapping. We got the distinct impression that we were supposed to take this very seriously indeed, which of course meant that we couldn't stop laughing though the whole "treatment." After we had been wrapped up in the blankets, we asked the spa assistant if he would come back later to finish the mummification and remove our brains through our noses. From his response, he either thought us very odd indeed, or had heard the joke a million times before (probably both). After a half-hour shoulder massage, we met up with the other women out in the waiting room again. When everyone was assembled, we walked into town for lunch.

Even without most of our gear or the bikes, we made a bit of a spectacle. It was "Cruise Around the Lake Day" in Calistoga, where cruiser riders gather to ride around Lake Berryessa together. It must have been apparent from our armored pants and scattered gear that we were bikers, as a few of the cruiser riders waved at us and gave us big smiles. Throughout the course of the day, I was thrilled with the reactions that we consistently got from other riders. It seemed that regardless of the types of motorcycles that the other bikers rode, we all exchanged nods and enthusiastic waves.

The conversation at lunchtime was easygoing and natural. I often find it difficult to carry on small talk and casual conversation with women that I don't know, but I felt as though I'd known these women for years. We chatted about our bikes and some favorite routes; we gossiped like high school girls; we laughed about our relationships and pets. For the first time in a while, I was with a group of women who shared my interests and sense of humor. It reminded me of why I love riding with women so much, and it felt good to know that I could add these people onto my mental checklist of "friends that I can ride with." In just that afternoon, I felt like I'd gained two new friends, and strengthened the two existing friendships.

We descended on the poor spa staff once more after lunch to reclaim our gear (the guy at the desk teased me when I asked for my helmet and jacket -- "oh, I have a helmet just like that too! How will I know which one is yours?" It wasn't until I'd rattled off the brand, model number and color of the helmet that I realized that he was kidding!). We took a couple of group pictures outside, then got geared up and ready to head home. Tai led us out of Calistoga again, and, once more, into heavy traffic. We puttered through the vineyards at around 15mph once more, and when we pulled off at a nearby exit, there was a lot of good-natured ribbing: "could you please slow down next time? I was way out of my skill level there". We said goodbye to Tai, who was going to peel off and head west back towards the North Bay; the remaining four of us continued south into Vallejo. At that point, we got onto the freeway for the first time that afternoon, and were met by huge gusts of wind sweeping over southbound 80. Poor Kim was riding towards the bike on her unfaired CB-1 400, and we got separated for a while as we all struggled with the wind and the heavy traffic. Eventually we all met up again at a gas station in Walnut Creek, and were grateful for the rest and break from the wind.

While we loitered at the gas station, a disabled woman pulled up in her car with an extremely flat front tire. We looked like a pit crew at the Indy 500; she drove uncertainly up to the air pump, and we (having been forewarned by a passerby as to the situation) descended upon her car, air in hand. Jody filled her tire while I checked her other ones, Cat showed the lady the damage from the flat and instructed her to get it replaced, and Kim found the nail that caused the flat. It was fun, and hopefully the gas station patrons ended up with a slightly better opinion of those wild and crazy biker girls.

Jody separated from us soon afterwards, and Kim and Cat and I continued back down towards the South Bay. They took an earlier exit than I did, and so my last 10 or so miles were done alone. I was cold (of course I'd left the vents of my jacket open even as the sun was going down) and tired and hungry, and felt absolutely wonderful. During the last leg between the gas station and peeling off on my own, I'd been riding sweep, and it kept me smiling the entire time. I'd look up and see Kim's silver helmet and behind it, Cat's gorgeous custom leathers, and it felt good. I felt like this was where I belonged; this was what I was supposed to be doing.

The best part about this ride is that it has encouraged me to do more of them. I'm planning weekend rides to Yosemite with my boyfriend (who also rides); I'm organizing trips to Women on Wheels events. I get through long days at work now by fantasizing about taking a cross-country trip, either alone or with friends. Just like I'd set out to prove to myself, now all of the times when I longingly think, "I could keep riding all day!" I can smile and think, "of course I can!"