Where you are going is always where you are. The destination is always the getting there.
So at the end of all my journeys it is 45 degrees and gray. I am sitting all alone at a red light on an empty stretch of Pacific Coast Highway. There is not a cop in sight so I could go anytime but I would rather watch gulls dance like mean drunks – just down there over the imaginary line between land and sea, between wet and dry, between the crashing and the still.
Then the end is Aviation Boulevard where the United States once had an aviation industry. Then the line where Aviation crosses Rosecrans.
Rosecrans is named for a Civil War hero who died along here someplace. The spot is unmarked. Rosecrans replaced a less heroic general named Buell. He was almost Lincoln’s Vice-President in 1864 so he almost was President. But instead Rosecrans became the street that connects high crime Compton with recession proof Manhattan Beach.
Then the end is the 180 degree onramp to the 405, to the 105, past the Watts Towers to the roller coaster turn that becomes the 605 to the 10 which connects Santa Monica and the 5 with Jacksonville and the I-95.
The Biker Motherland
I once rode a highly modified Sportster with a peanut tank so I know it is just over sixty miles from the Pacific to the TA Truck Stop in Ontario. Just as soon as the National Academy of Scooter Trash accepts my application I intend to nominate the TA Truck Stop in Ontario for the Biker Hall of Fame. This is the California biker motherland. The Run to the Wall used to start at that truck stop. For all I know it still does.
A couple of miles down the road is Fontana where the Hells Angels decided to call themselves that. And right next to Fontana is Bloomington which long ago, after the last good war, was full of Pissed Off Bastards – before all the Pissed Off Bastards moved to Berdoo. About 75 miles inland, just off a stretch of paint shaker road that nobody will ever smooth, is a roadhouse named Angels. It used to be called the Crossroads. And, just as soon as I get accepted, I am going to nominate Angels for the Hall of Fame, too.
Not everybody with twenty grand to spend on a motorcycle is willing to ride here. There is always too much traffic which always behaves as too much traffic always does. A maniac in a hybrid changes lanes frantically. He seems certain that he can find the opening everyone else has missed because he is smarter, better and, from the vantage of his climate controlled, soundproofed box, more environmentally aware than me. He cuts me off and stands on his brakes. I have seen him coming for miles. There is an accident a half mile ahead so he does not stay in front of me for long because I can split lanes. He cannot. And, I know he hates me for that. I know he would like to kill me over that. But, he does not kill me because I do not let him. By the time he imagines the lesson he should have taught that loud, obnoxious, aggressive biker I am already gone.
Or The End Might Be
An ambulance pushes past me on the shoulder. It was a two car fight. One car lost a front wheel like a knocked-out tooth. I shudder and the bike shudders in my hands. Some day I will be on a stretch of road I know so well that I will be completely disarmed of fear. I will see the accident coming and I will accelerate hard to my left or my right to get as far away from the collision as I can. Then just out of the corner of my eye I will see something hurtling toward me. Maybe I will have time to understand I have been knocked over by a careening wheel. Maybe not. Then the cars behind me will run me over and that will be that.
So there goes the last of my happy mood. Now I am grumpy because sometimes I like to imagine I will live forever. For the next thirty or forty miles I am spooked by every little thing. A boxy, seventies pickup sheds trash like dandruff. A plastic water bottle escapes in slow motion. A sandwich bag floats like a feather. I always hate the trash that floats on the wind. I fly around him after a can pops out.
A half mile ahead of him a car drifts left then lurches right. I edge up next to the driver. Sometimes that is enough. They don’t have to hear what I am screaming. They just have to know that I am crazy enough to do that. Just seeing me right there with my face contorted in senseless rage usually encourages them to put both hands on the wheel and look straight ahead. But this guy is so engrossed in rolling a joint on his lap that he never even notices that I am there. That is the third or fourth time I have seen that in the last couple of years. I used to think texters were bad.
As I speed away a little tumbler in my head goes click. Now I get it.
What Would You Say If I Sang
There is a music festival in Coachella, east of Palm Springs, all weekend so the worst of this traffic is music lovers. Many of them will be spending the night on site. So when traffic suddenly slows again and parts into lines I am not surprised to see a fallen sleeping bag. I actually ride as close to the bag as I can, just to show my contempt, about which nobody cares but me. Then by either pure, naked luck or the complexity of the Lord’s plan I am maneuvering far over on the right when the sleeping bag’s companion, a feather pillow, explodes into an instant blizzard and even I have to admit that all those feathers are pretty.
Another few minutes and I am past the first Indian casino and the born again dinosaurs of Cabazon and into the windmill forest when all four lanes are covered with what must have been two gross of dancing pastel thongs: Yellow, pink, teal, baby blue and fuchsia. I think the carton from which they escaped is over in lane one. I can tell these must be high quality thongs. They appear to be made of the finest, lightest, synthetic cloth. They tumble down the freeway in rolling waves. And that is the exact moment when I realize again, for the thousandth time, that it never matters where I am going. The thongs make me smile all the way to Indio and out into the emptiness beyond.
I like to ride the western deserts: The Mojave, the Great Basin and the Colorado. Whatever I am chasing I almost catch out there. Although this is not my favorite desert season. It has been a wet, el nino winter so the desert is green and full of tiny bugs. Sometimes they explode on my face and hands like sprinkles of rain and sometimes I feel like I am suffocating in clouds of them.
Around the fallen dream called Desert Center I overtake a truck trailing a long, burlap or muslin shroud. Some lumper has left this curtain outside the locked trailer doors and now most of the top has torn away and the bottom has twisted into a slowly breaking whip. Two or three times I swear the cloth has broken loose before I finally twist my right hand and fly around him and again I am practically alone. Just me and the desert and blue heaven and the bugs. This desert seems timeless – as free of history as people – but that is only an illusion like painter’s perspective.
The Myth Of History
Chevron and a couple other corporations plan to build three solar generating plants out here in all this nothing. Reportedly, the twelve thousand mirrors will not cover the “Blythe intaglios,” a collection of giant drawings scraped into the desert 4,000 years ago like the more famous Nazca lines in Peru.
The proper name for this kind of art is “geoglyph” and the really interesting ones out here are drawings of Kokopelli and Cicimitl. Kokopelli is the hump-backed flautist whose image is carved into rocks all over the Four Corners. All the really cool archaeologists think Kokopelli it is a representation of a new religion, called the kachina cult, that popped up about the time the builders of Chaco and Mesa Verde abandoned those cities and started moving south. Kokopelli might have been an historic person, or he might be representative of the merchants who moved parrots north from Mexico and jade and turquoise south. Or he might just have been the twelfth century equivalent of Bart Simpson. Nobody really knows. And, now people mostly worship Kokopelli in souvenir shops and tourist traps all over the west.
Cicimitl was sort of the Aztec Charon, who led lost souls to the underworld. And, neo-Aztecs drive out here from the cities to dance around Kokopelli and Cicimitl. And they worry that the new solar plants might cover them over. And this weird and zany convergence of the ancient and the future, of secret native sorcery and soulless corporate technology fascinates me.
Although it would fascinate me more if the Kokopelli and Cicimitl were truly ancient. The disillusioning truth is that they were not carved into the mother earth until around 1994. I mention them only because I like to think when I ride the less crowded roads. Out here I think about the geoglyphs. Even though I know that daydreaming represents exactly the kind of apathy that will kill you on a motorcycle. I dream anyway because I learned a long time ago that nobody lives forever.
I cross what is left of the Colorado at Blythe. This far down the river seven states have already drunk most of it. The thirstiest of them are California, Arizona and Nevada so here the river is, at most, a third as wide as it is at Laughlin 115 miles to the north. A mile past the river I spot the first groves of saguaro, the big cacti that look like a man waving hello. And about a mile past the first saguaro the traffic bunches and slows because a couple of Arizona Highway patrolmen are glaring at each passing vehicle and waving a gesture that simultaneously means slow down and giddy-up.
Arizona has always been a scatter of straws. It looks just like whatever you want. To me it looks like an hysterical, all-American, Mexican, wild west, futuristic police state.
The contradictions here are too numerous to list. Arizona was the last of the contiguous states to enter the Union in 1912 and before then there was some debate about whether the Arizona Territory was Democrat or Republican. It was the Republicans’ idea to turn it into a state. All the small ranchers, and outlaws and cowboys and rustlers and dreamers in this desert were natural Democrats. All the big mine owners and land speculators and mercantilists were Republicans. The history of Arizona is the history of big time Republicans like the Goldwaters hiring small time Democrats like the Earps to shoot some sense into other small time Democrats like the Clantons.
Arizona was practically founded on rustling cattle down in old Mexico and selling them north of la linea. Now the same place is an uproar over all the entrepreneurs who are smuggling in drugs over those same, old desert trails. Of course, there is a war going on just down there. And, the great terror in Arizona is that the war will invade the north, again, just like Pancho Villa did during the last Mexican war. On television, they call it the “Battle for the Border” and it is a recurring segment on the evening news.
Arizona is getting ready. In Arizona, any felony free, citizen can carry a loaded pistol in his boot or in his pocket or tucked inside his jeans under his shirt. In another couple of months federal firearms laws will no longer apply to guns made and kept in Arizona. Hell, I have already given some thought to moving over here and opening up a little machine gun shop.
At the same time this is a state where you can get arrested just because a cop thinks you look Mexican. Not even Mexican. You can get arrested here on the suspicion that you look illegal. And the consequences of being arrested can be nasty.
The Maricopa County Sheriff is a mean, fat, loud man named Joe Arpaio. Arpaio plays “America’s Toughest Sheriff” on reality TV. He abuses, humiliates and malnourishes any prisoner he can get his hands on. He houses them in tents in the desert summer, limits how much they can drink and if you talk back he will put you on a chain gang. And, most of working class, desperately broke Arizona adores and identifies with Sheriff Joe as it indentifies with angry FOX News and working class George W. Bush.
Photo Enforcement Zones
My favorite thing about Arizona is that I can ride helmet free. Arizona and I both agree that it is my head and I can adorn or unadorn it as I wish.
A few miles past the scowling cops simultaneously telling me to slow down and get along I run through my least favorite thing – a “photo enforcement zone.” That’s what they call them here. They are robot, fine collecting machines and they are part of Arizona’s master plan to survive. Turning Arizona into the neo-Alamo is going to cost a lot of money. And, now that this territory has run out of most of its silver, copper and gold; now that most of those free cattle down in Mexico are gone; now that the water is running low the Arizona economy is more dependent than ever on the traffic ticket industry.
What kind of puzzles me is why more people don’t just pull their pistols out of their boots and shoot these pernicious machines. I might have done that myself except I was going about ninety at the time, passing a truck, and I didn’t see the thing until it was already too late.
I stop for gas in Quartzite and then again in Tonopah. I drive around Phoenix on the 101 Beltway and eventually, 405 miles from the coast, I pull into a gas station on Bell Road. I can barely hear the guy who asks me, “Is there some kind of a run today?”
Mostly I hear my motorcycle, even with the engine turned off. I think I say, “Yep.” That’s what I intend to say. I don’t actually know if any sound came out of my mouth or not.
I pull out of the station and find my way into the shopping center across the street. Near the northeast corner is a lot full of motorcycles and a crowded bar called the Steel Horse Saloon. I park and go pay my money for the poker run.
Poker runs are sort of the American biker equivalent of a scavenger hunt. You find your way from place to place, get your ticket punched and in the end the resulting pattern of holes on a piece of cardboard gets translated into a five card poker hand.
The poker run was invented by a hot rod club called the Mid-Cal Stockers in Lodi, California in March 1950. For a few years after the Second World War the club ran “rallies” every Spring. The idea of the rally was to run a race without actually breaking the speed limit so the courses were controlled and difficult to navigate. In 1950 the Stockers decided to spice things up. Drivers had to decide at each of five control points whether to turn left or right. If they guessed correctly they got a card. That gave everybody two chances to win. Even if you did not win the rally you could still win the “poker run.” The Stockers handed out the prizes that night at a “bean feed” at the clubhouse of the Lodi Women’s Motorcycle Club. That was how these things got started. As soon as organizers decided to pass out the cards in bars the idea was perfected.
This poker run is sponsored by the Cave Creek Charter of the Hells Angels and it is intended to celebrate the beginning of Sonny Barger’s 54th year in the club.
I will never live long enough to know for sure, but I think Barger is one of those American frontier figures that pop up every hundred years. They are characters that America invents over and over because without them and the masculine ideals they represent there can no longer be an America. And America has chosen these particular men because in a certain light, remembered in a certain way, at certain times they have actually managed to be exactly who we all need them to be. Lives fly past but myths persist.
The first of these great frontier heroes was a man named Daniel Boone. He was born about 200 years before Barger. He lived to be 85. And six years after he died the American novelist James Fennimore Cooper wrote a book about him called The Last of the Mohicans. Until it was banished by the counter-culture the novel was part of the American canon. It is the tale of a self sufficient, resourceful, brave man overcoming red demons and the wilderness to rescue his kidnapped daughter. Every educated young American man was supposed to know it – as much as anything for its portrait of what an American man should be. Even now, the story retains the power to excite the American soul. Michael Mann directed the last movie version of it in 1992.
The last real, geographic frontier, the Old West, disappeared in and into serial episodes. The Silver Rush started in Tombstone in 1879. Doc Holliday died in 1887. John Wesley Harding was killed in 1895. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid moved to New York in 1902. A year later, a former Edison cameraman named Edwin S. Porter made the first movie Western – in New York City. The Yukon Gold Rush came and went in 1897. The last frontier hero, Wyatt Earp, went north that year to run a card game in Alaska. Earp died in the first fortnight of 1929 in Los Angeles. His pall bearers included the Western movie stars Tom Mix and William S. Hart. According to a mourner named Adella Rogers St. John, Tom Mix broke down and wept.
Barger became a public figure about thirty-five years after that. His first biographer, Hunter Thompson wrote in 1965: “In any gathering of Hells Angels, from five to a possible hundred and fifty, there is no doubt who is running the show: Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, the Maximum Leader, a six-foot, 170-pound warehouseman from East Oakland, the coolest head in the lot, and a tough, quick-thinking dealer when any action starts. By turns he is a fanatic, a philosopher, a brawler, a shrewd compromiser and a final arbitrator. To the Oakland Angels he is Ralph. Everybody else calls him Sonny….”
For all these years, Barger has had to live with that. He has already had almost as long a run as Earp. In a book published last year, ATF Agent Jay Dobyns gushed about meeting Barger:
“This was the first time I’d laid eyes on the man. He was around sixty-five, but looked to have the health of a vibrant man in his mid-fifties, a remarkable achievement considering the paces he’s put his body through over the decades…. For those who don’t know, this was the man – the legend, really – who molded the Hells Angels into what they are. It’s not a stretch to say that Sonny Barger is a visionary who essentially created the image of the outlaw biker as we know it.”
Now, on top of everything else, Barger has to live with that.
He cannot just be one of us. He has to carry the burden of epitomizing all of us. I have heard him praised by people who hate his club. The very best thing about Sonny Barger may be that he carries the burden cheerfully.
Probably a third of all American men can describe him. In person he looks younger than he photographs. He looks to me the same way he has always looked. He looks like Dennis the Menace grown old. I am certain that he must have a walk-in closet full of sleeveless tee shirts and blue jeans that are neither too new nor too shabby.
He has to know he is the biggest star in America. I don’t know how he lives with it. He is everything that a once in each century American hero should be. He is himself. And whoever that is, is close enough to the myth most of America still wants to believe. He is gracious, confidant and surrounded by men who would die for him. And, most astounding of all, there is not a paparazzo in sight. I think I spot two under cover cops. I think they are cops because they are the only people I see who look nervous.
So that moment leaning on my bike fifteen feet away from him, wondering if he might actually outlive me, knowing that I can only write about him, that he will never write about me is the end. And watching the lot slowly fill is another end.
I push into the bar, buy a bottle of water and come back to the bike to drink. A skinny brunette asks to take my picture and I tell her sure. I give her a slightly hard time and then I tell her sure. She has already clicked the shudder before I tell her she can. So somewhere out there is a picture of a guy with a mustache, in a flannel shirt, aviator sunglasses and a black beanie leaning a dusty Dyna and that is one of the scattered, little pieces that might survive me.
Eventually the bikes begin to growl. The way the Cave Creek Angels run a poker run is everybody travels from bar to bar in a pack.
The pack lines up, jostles and begins to spill out onto Bell. The front of the pack has probably reached Interstate 17 when I turn onto the street. At least half the pack is still behind me. Once the first bikes hit the freeway everyone behind must speed up. Nobody cares about red lights. Nobody gives a damn about photo enforcement zones. Laws and controls are irrelevant because we are all Americans. We are natural and free and in a saddle which is just where we were born to be.
We force ourselves onto the freeway the way bold men force coy women. Some cars are smart enough to let us have our way and some are not. I twist open the throttle and try to catch the front of the pack. Everybody is trying to do the same thing.
I glance down at my speedometer just long enough to see I am somewhere north of 90. And I laugh. Because, I don’t give a damn who remembers me. And because, if I am ever made to choose, this is just how I would choose to die.