One of my favorite parts about the Quail Motorcycle Gathering is that it provides a wonderful excuse for Southern Californians to hop on their bikes and ride. This year I rode up to the show with Julia LaPalme and a few friends, and she was kind enough to share how the trip went!
I know I still owe you a recap from the event, I promise I haven’t forgotten about it!
Changing directions every five seconds, the pavement wound its way around and between the blossoming hills, leading us closer and closer to the coast. As the scenery opened up, the sky revealed itself as liquid rose gold, spilling over the sharp horizon into small pools of shimmering color, filling in the divots of the ocean’s rippled surface. I was taking up the tail end of our merry little band of riders, and I found myself slowing to a stop at a small turnout, letting my friends ahead of me gain distance. I wanted to soak it all in, and I was happy to do it alone. I kicked the side stand out, dismounted the Ducati Monster 797 laden down with saddlebags and camping gear, and approached the edge of the hillside. Below me, Nacimiento-Ferguson road continued to carve into the hillside, leading my four fellow riders down turn after turn to meet the Pacific Coast Highway. My throat tightened as I drank in the setting sun. It had been a hell of a ride that day.
We started our adventure from Los Angeles with the intent of taking our time getting up to Carmel for the Quail Motorcycle Gathering. This was the 25th anniversary of the Ducati Monster, and as a nod to that, the folks at Ducati were kind enough to loan me a 797 for the weekend. Abhi, Mike, Will, and I threaded our way through the morning traffic up 405 to 101, where we hit Highway 33 in Ventura. My friend Marck, from Santa Barbara, met us on his GSX-R at a gas station in Ojai, where, coincidentally, the Why We Ride group stopped for fuel. We spotted a few familiar faces within the crowd, and said our hellos, but resisted the unspoken pressure to join the organized ride. We wanted to stay small and nimble and fast for the curves ahead. After our bellies and our bikes were both refueled, we saddled up again and began the climb up the twisty mountain road that I know like the back of my hand; my motorcycle training ground. I used to ride Highway 33 every weekend in the early months of my motorcycling career. Each time I ride it now, it feels like coming home.
A few of the riders managed to gain plenty of distance on me, as I had the weight disadvantage of camping gear strapped to my bike. At first I made an attempt to keep up with the faster riders, but then I resigned myself to slow down and enjoy the ride at a more leisurely pace. The 797 is a fun bike to throw about into the twisties, and its distinct V-twin rumble was a welcome sound echoing off the surrounding hillsides. After about 30 miles in, we pulled over into a large turnout with an old building the locals refer to as “Wolf’s.” This has been my normal stopping point along Highway 33 since I started riding this road in 2004. It has a half dozen picnic tables out front, and an establishment that has claimed “Opening soon!” for as long as I’ve been riding there. Despite its lack of available services, it’s still a nice resting point, and was the turnaround point for Marck, as he would head back down the hill into Ojai and back home from there. After a 20 minute break, chatting about bikes and the ride ahead, I hugged Marck goodbye and four of us continued on toward Maricopa.
As we crested the summit, the terrain changed from scrub brush on the south facing slopes to pine forest on the north facing slopes. The temperature began to rise a bit as we dipped down into the valley where we would stop in Ventucopa for another break, and to buy some pistachios.
After that, the road straightened up as we made our way past the oil fields of Taft, before eventually turning off onto Highway 58. Now the terrain got interesting again, as we dipped our bikes into the turns that led us up through the hills before finding ourselves at the north end of Carrizo Plain National Monument. We were well past blooming season, and it wasn’t a repeat of last year’s super bloom. But there were still hints of spring, with a few flowers at the roadside here and there. It wasn’t until we got closer to Paso Robles that the hillsides started turning greener, and the flowers became more plentiful.
We stopped for lunch at a local pizza joint in Paso Robles, where our friend Shane joined the group, and Mike would be heading back south. As we sat outside enjoying the perfect weather and delicious food, a few passersby were craning their necks as they walked past our bikes. “Which one is your favorite?” we taunted one of them, as the five of us quietly took bets on which bike was getting the most attention. “The yellow one,” the man responded, pointing at the Aprilia Caponord Shane had brought. We continued our jovial lunch conversation amongst ourselves until Shane asked, “Hey, do you guys like riding motorcycles?” Clearly, it was time to get rolling again!
The road leading us out of Paso Robles was yet another twisty bit of asphalt carving through the countryside. We rode past Lake Nacimiento, and stopped briefly to enjoy a view of the rolling green hills, highlighted by the afternoon sun. It only took a few minutes before Shane asked again, “Hey, do you guys like riding motorcycles?” We all laughed and geared back up after taking some photos of the bucolic scenery. Eventually we found ourselves riding through Fort Hunter Liggett before joining Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. We were starting to feel pressed for time as the sun was getting lower in the sky, and some of us still had camp to set up when we got to our destinations. The low golden light made every blade of grass, and every new oak tree leaf glow. But instead of stopping again for any more photos (and risk getting chided by Shane again), we pushed on. The photographer in me was almost in physical pain, passing up such a beautiful scene.
Funny enough, when we did stop for a rest and to take in more beautiful countryside, we were only parked for 10 minutes when Abhi realized his friend Nathan was close, and would be able to meet up with us. Eventually, as we stood at a roadside turnout, in the middle of the hills with no cell service, we heard Nathan ride around the next corner, and we greeted him enthusiastically when he joined us. We didn’t even let him take his helmet off; we had to keep moving. And so, we ducked in and out of sunshine and shade, past green hillsides bursting with flowers, passing more traffic than I had ever seen on Nacimiento-Ferguson road. It was clear this was the only entry to the Pacific Coast Highway from the south. And everyone had found it.
And then, we broke through the forest, through the tight interlocking of hills, and the sky widened, and the ocean lay before us, below us. I stopped to take in the setting sun, take some photos, breathe in the moment. Then I saddled up the 797 again to catch up with my riding crew. I met them at the bottom of Nacimiento-Ferguson, and we all continued on north. A few of us peeled off at a campground, feeling frugal and adventurous, setting up camp by the last light of day, while the others carried on north into Monterey. The roaring campfire in a creekside campsite was the perfect end to a perfect day of riding. And this was just the beginning of the weekend.
The following day, after a morning hike chasing waterfalls through the redwoods, we all met back up for lunch at Nepenthe, and spent the rest of the day riding and exploring the lightly traveled coast. We rode all the way down to Gorda, where the gate across the road firmly signals travelers to turn around, due to the giant landslide at Mud Creek only a couple miles south of the tiny outpost. Abhi and Nathan wanted to get sunset photos and footage at Bixby Bridge, which was almost all the way back into Monterey. I had removed my luggage from the tail of the Monster, and felt much more nimble, and eager to chase those coastal curves. Bixby Bridge is an iconic piece of the Big Sur Coast, and it was a treat to be there at sunset. The only downside was the 30 mile ride in the chilly dark all the way back to our campsite, but sleeping in a tent with the creek hushing me to sleep was worth it. We would have an early start in the morning!
Saturday morning we packed up camp and headed north to Carmel Valley to make it to the Quail Motorcycle Gathering. I wanted to get there early to see more of the motorcycles on the lawn before the crowds showed up. But it seems I wasn’t the only person with this idea, as there were plenty of people on site when we rolled in. It’s one of my favorite motorcycle shows to attend, as it’s small and intimate, and in one of the best areas, with some of the best riding up and around there. I could easily turn it into a weeklong trip, but an extended weekend was all my traveling companions and I could manage this year. It was still so perfect.
The show ended far too soon (why must it only last one day??) And one of my favorite bikes of the show won the modded class, which made me happy. Afterwards, a whole bunch of us headed over to the Moto Talbott Motorcycle Museum for a celebration with the Bonnier folks to ring in the newest issue of Cycle World. And, of course, ogle a few dozen cool bikes on display. I was 3-for-3 on solidly good days for the weekend. On the way back south on Pacific Coast Highway, after a quick stop to take in the sunset, the chill set in again as we headed back to the campground for the night.
Sunday’s ride was more utilitarian than sight-seeing and epic, but we had fun nonetheless. Shane and Abhi both had to skip the fun route home, as they had tighter schedules. Nathan, Will, and I enjoyed Nacimiento-Ferguson Road again, stopping for photos (though the lighting was not as gorgeous as it had been on Thursday), and enjoyed equally beautiful weather. How did we get so lucky? We skipped Highway 58 once we got back to Paso Robles, and simply made a beeline down Highway 101, until we peeled off for Highway 154 through the Santa Barbara wine country. After stopping again for a few more photos, we continued on into Santa Barbara, where we stopped for a quick visit with Marck. The ride home from there was chilly and dark, but let me tell you: when my head hit the pillow of my own bed at home, I fell into a deep satisfied sleep. This was the best ride I had had up to the Quail Motorcycle Gathering in I can’t remember how long. And I simply couldn’t wait to do it all over again.
Editor’s Note: If you’d like to know more about the Ducati Monster 797, check out Julia’s First Ride review on Motorcyclist!