Parkfield: July 2006

Parkfield Dual-Sport Ride: July 8-9, 2006

Full Cast of Characters

  • Carolyn (“bluepoof”), 2005 Yamaha XT225
  • Chris (“naked_sv”), KTM Adventure 640
  • Gary (“twist”), 2006 BMW R1200GS
  • Jim (“TheExplorer”), Kawasaki KLR 650
  • Peter, 2002 Yamaha XT225


July 8, 2006

escaping the bay area.
What can I say about escaping the Bay Area other than “then we turned right, then we turned onto this road, then that road?” Apparently, not much, because I had a couple of paragraphs already typed up when I realized that this first section was boring as hell.

The redeeming factor of the section was a little detour Jim led us through near Henry W. Coe State Park. We didn’t actually go into the park; the roads within this largest state park in Northern California are open to hikers, horses, and bicyclists only. We did skirt the park, however, on Canada Road, a fun little narrow and twisty back road.

When we stopped along Canada, I parked the XT next to Gary’s BMW R1200GS, prompting the guys to laugh and say “the XT is thinking that’s what it’ll be when it grows up!”. Ah, but it was I who had the last laugh once the pavement ended and the road was steep and dusty….;)

From Canada Road until our lunch in Gonzales, the theme was definitely “farmland”. The first bits of road in San Benito County’s Highways 152 and 156 are lined with fields; some barren, some fruitful under the July sun. Signs for roadside stands promised fresh apricots and cherries, and the air smelled of strawberries.

For lunch, we stopped at my favorite little place in Gonzales: a Beacon gas station that also happens to house an amazingly good Mexican restaurant. Jim, Gary, and I happily chowed down on fresh burritos while Chris and Peter decided to take the gastonomically safer route to a neighboring Subway. Their loss! It is a personal goal of mine to someday speak enough Spanish to order my burrito in Gonzales. I feel like the world’s whitest human walking in there, hearing all these locals musically order and chitchat, and I then I say “chicken burrito, please” like the Midwesterner I am. Sigh.

A sign next to the Beacon station proclaims Gonzales to be the “wine capital of Monterey County”, and we could see why as we headed off towards our first dirt road of the day. Gloria Road follows acre after acre of vineyards as it heads up into the Gabilan mountain range.

dirt in the gabilans.
The Gabilan Range is the middle of central California’s three coastal ranges (to the north are the Santa Cruz Mountains; to the south are the Santa Lucias). Sometimes spelled “Gavilan” on older maps, these mountains are bordered on the east by the San Andreas Fault, and the range is probably best known for containing Pinnacles National Monument.

For me, though, the Gabilans are well-known for containing Gloria Road. After a few miles, the pavement ends, and we have our first dirt of the trip! I was last on Gloria Road in early spring, when the road was packed down and rutted from the winter rains. This time, though, everything was dusty and sandy. As my rear wheel spun out in a couple of corners, I sure missed the ruts and divots from the rainwater! I stayed upright (how, especially in one corner, I don’t know), but Chris wasn’t as lucky. Peter and then I came around a corner to find his KTM lying on its side in the sand. After making sure Chris was OK, I had him pose with his kill — his first drop in the dirt!

It was pretty easy for the three of us to get the bike back up. Good thing, too, because a couple of turns later, Chris fell again (on the other side this time — he had to be symmetrical!). Peter had already gone ahead, but Chris and I were able to right the bike alone. It was getting warm, and I’m sure Chris’s second drop was directly connected to being shaken up by the first one. The first time I rode on dirt, I think I dropped my XT about four times in rapid succession before taking the hint…and a break. 😉 Chris was smarter than I’d been and made sure he was hydrated and relaxed before getting back on the bike.

We found the rest of the group hiding in a shady spot a few more turns up, so we exchanged stories and took some more photos. It was getting warmer and warmer, so for the rest of the day, our group stops were done in the shade. 😉

I was behind Gary in the next section of Gloria, which was utterly unrecognizable to me. In the spring, this section was lined with wildflowers of every imaginable color and tall green grasses, and the road was grey and rocky. In summer, though, everything is dusty and barren: the road, the hills, the grasses. Everything.

warming up and heading south.
Our brief paved section in between dirt roads was no disappointment — I love the coloring in the Griswold Hills.

Soon we were on Old Hernandez Road, and back to dirt. I loved this little road, twisting along the San Benito River. Jim says that there’s a water crossing here whenever it’s not the middle of summer; sadly, of course, it was dried up when we went through. The road here is deserted and dry; more dust and barren farmlands. “No Hunting!” signs peppered the roadsides, and we saw plenty of cows, if no people.

It was really starting to warm up. I was glad to have my Camelbak.

We turned onto Los Gatos-Coalinga Road, a long paved road that would take us right into the town of Coalinga. The road name is unrelated to the town of Los Gatos in the Bay Area; rather, it likely refers to the Los Gatos Creek that runs through Coalinga. Many places in California are named after the Spanish word for “cat” — in fact, the Santa Cruz Mountains that Peter and I ride through frequently were originally named Cuesta de los Gatos.

Los Gatos-Coalinga Road is paved, but it’s another of those twisty narrow backroads. There was slightly more traffic on this one than on the rest, by which I mean we might have seen three or four pickups instead of only one.

The closer we got to Coalinga, the hotter it got, and I was slowing down. I found myself spacing out through turns, target-fixating on anything that caught my eye along the roadside. I never made a wide turn or crossed the centerline, but I found myself slowing more and more to compensate for my brain farts. Peter stuck back with me for a little while, until finally I pulled over to eat some trail mix and try to shake it off a little bit. I tried to photograph an amazing 3″ long beetle that was flying amongst the flowers, but the wind made it difficult to focus the camera properly.

I waved Peter on ahead and continued on my slow but steady drone down Los Gatos-Coalinga Road. Hotter and hotter; I got slower and slower. I passed the time by ticking off landmarks I passed: Hernandez Reservoir (so tempting to just say “screw it all” and dive in…), entrances to Clear Creek OHV Park, crossing into Fresno County.

I even found a historical marker; a Clampers plaque commemmorating “Benitoite”, a new mineral species discovered in this valley in 1907. I need to find some of this; it sounds awesome. It’s sapphire colored (just my type!) and flouresces under UV light. Benitoite in gem quality is only found in this area of California; it was declared the California state gem in 1985.

The landscape changes in the last few miles into Coalinga — everything turns yellow. It was definitely desert scenery, which always makes me happy, and it rejuvenated me a bit. I stopped for photos a few times, even knowing I was way behind the rest of the group by this point, but I was smiling in my helmet. I love the desert.

I stopped for this horse farm just outside of Coalinga, and a man driving past — one of the only cars I’d seen for at least an hour — slowed to make sure I was OK. “Did you break down?” he called from inside his air-conditioned car. “Nope, just taking pictures,” I said. I thanked him very sincerely, though…I’d find out later that it was 108F outside, and anyone broken down out there with no shade would be in a world of trouble very shortly. “Great,” he said, “oh, your friends are waiting for you down the road!” I took that as my cue to stop photographing horses and get on my way.

Not terribly surprisingly, given its name, Coalinga started out as a coal town. Unlike most mining boom towns, though, it survived, and is this year celebrating its 100th birthday as an incorporated city. Now it’s an oil town, bobbing oil wells dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see.

Coalinga resides in the optimistically named Pleasant Valley, but at over 100F, there wasn’t much pleasant about it. Chris’s KTM was acting wonky, too — it died at the traffic light just before our gas station stop and would continue to run lean for the next day. I think I remember Chris saying that adjusting the idle screw the following day would solve the problem, but in Coalinga, it was a frustrating exercise for him to try to start the KTM.

Meanwhile, I decided there was only one way to beat the heat:

Highway 198 out of Coalinga was more beautiful than I’d remembered it. More desert scenery. I only stopped for one picture of some wild sunflowers but somehow still managed to get way behind everyone again. I even rushed the photo!

Parkfield Grade starts out paved and then turns to dirt right around the summit, which is also, not coincidentally, the county line between Fresno (paved) and Monterey (unpaved). Jim was pretty upset, as the whole thing was unpaved in the not too distant past, but at least the gal at the Parkfield Cafe later assured us that Monterey County had no plans to ever pave the rest of the road.

Even the paved sections were stupendous; wide empty turns with amazing views of places with wonderful names like Deadman Canyon and Devil’s Gate.

The group stopped near the summit in view of some cows grazing by a nearby pond. There were also these amazingly cool rocks, which I saw nowhere else along the road. It looked like shale, and broke off easily when Peter decided that motorcycling was too safe and that maybe he’d like to take up rock climbing. We all waited with our cameras at the ready, but he didn’t wind up falling down the rock on his head.

Shortly thereafter, Parkfield Grade turns to dirt for its final descent down into Parkfield. Twisting through Pine Canyon, the road is nicely graded (i.e. interesting but not butt-clenchingly difficult), wide, and pretty smooth. I practiced my body positioning during the downhill twisties, an exercise that would come in handy the following day on Old Coast Road….

If there’s ever a happier sight than dirt twisties heading down into a rural town that promises beer and a place to sleep, I don’t want to know what it is.

Parkfield’s claim to fame, of course, is its placement directly on top of the most active section of the San Andreas Fault. The fault, which runs through Parkfield as a dry creek bed, divides the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate. The Parkfield Experiment, started in 1985, is a long-term earthquake research project on the San Andreas that focuses on this tiny town in Monterey County. Historically, earthquakes of magnitude 6.0 or greater happen here every 22 years, though the latest one (September 28, 2004) ran 11 years behind schedule. Slacker.

Meanwhile, tourists like us are invited to “sleep here when it happens!” at the Parkfield Inn and “eat here when it happens!” at the Parkfield Cafe. Our hotel room was perfect for motorcyclists — “the tool room”! Though Peter questioned hanging large, sharp, farm implements on the walls of a place that prides itself on its earthquakes…

We ate dinner, of course, at the Parkfield Cafe. The burgers are pretty good, but what really sets the Cafe apart is its homemade french fries. Those are damn good french fries. The Cafe also has a decent beer selection (I had an amber from a Gilroy brewery, which was pretty good), though Gary lamented their lack of Guinness. 😉 Jim now highly recommends the ribs, which must have been good, because he wound up wearing as much as he ate by the end of the meal!

We wandered around a bit after dinner (“oh, you can take that outside, honey”, said the waitress, eyeing my still half-full bottle of beer). For those looking for a real estate opportunity, these Sante Fe railroad cars on the edge of town were for sale for just around $100k (“retail permitting might prove difficult”, cautioned the flyer). Another wild sunflower field grew just behind the train cars, which pleased me.

After our walk, we sat around a picnic table next to the Inn for a while, bullshitting and listening to the frogs and bats. It was an early night for everyone, and we went to bed, agreeing to leave by 8am the next morning.

Continue on to Sunday…

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