California Hotel Reservations
California Dream Trip, Day One
Home to Paso Robles | Miles Ridden: 240.7
When I decided to make my living as a freelancer over a decade ago, I moved to California. I had spent the previous fifteen years living in New York City. I love New York, but I was becoming more and more obsessed with motorcycling, and the riding season in Manhattan is pretty short. Moving to Los Angeles, I reasoned, would expand my potential riding days from 150 up to 365. I was right – but potential riding days and actual riding days are rarely equal, especially when juggling the demands of work, family, and other obligations. I have to carve out time for riding, and the time has come. I’m going to take a trip to some of the California high points that I have not yet explored, and revisit some of my old favorite routes.
My steed for this adventure is the 2014 Harley-Davidson CVO Limited. It is the top-of-the-line bike this year, having been dragged through the H-D Parts & Accessories Catalog and dressed up with nearly every conceivable performance and appearance upgrade available, and emerging with a starting price of $38,999.
The CVO (Custom Vehicle Operations) bikes are showpieces for the Motor Company, and my Limited is a gorgeous example of the best that Harley has to offer. It’s a beneficiary of Project Rushmore, the customer-influenced makeover that was applied to the touring platform this year. The CVO Limited has a Twin-Cooled 110-inch High Output Twin Cam V-Twin engine with Screaming Eagle performance upgrades and a six-speed transmission. It has the new Boom! Audio sound system with a 6.5-inch color touchscreen, a navigation system, a newly redesigned batwing fairing with flow-through ventilation, great new easy-to-operate saddlebags and Tour Pak, and many other features.
My bike wears a beautiful coat of factory custom paint in Stardust Silver and Autumn Sunset with hand-painted Dragontail graphics, and oodles of chrome shiny bits. It’s beautiful, powerful, and maneuverable – really the ultimate touring machine.
I pack up the bike with my clothing and camera and video gear, and head out on the road. Leaving Los Angeles is always a challenge. I thought I made a safe bet by starting my trip on the weekend, but the traffic gods have stacked the deck against me. The roads are jam-packed with cars in every direction. I resign myself to a slow slog, and endure bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way to Santa Barbara. We can lane split legally in California, and I do my share when it is safe. If the CVO Limited has one downside, it is its width – and its price tag. I ride very carefully, not daring to get any scratches on the fancy custom paintjob.
Just north of Santa Barbara, I leave the crowded freeway behind for one of my favorite scenic shortcuts, San Marcos Pass (SR-154), also known as “Chumash Highway.” Before US 101 was built, this was the main route between Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley – it was even a stagecoach route. It’s a two-lane road most of the way, with occasional passing lanes, and it rises from sea level over the 2,000-foot elevation of the San Marcos Pass through the Los Padres National Forest. You get great views of Lake Chumash, some fun twists and turns, and it lets you out in Los Olivos, a charming little town that was once home to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. SR 154 can be as crowded as US 101, but today it’s relatively clear, and I have a nice, easy 60-mile ride.
My destination today is Paso Robles, a growing city of 30,000 people in Northern San Luis Obispo County. Paso, as the locals call it, is the unofficial dividing line between northern and southern California, sitting at the halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Because of this convenient location, it makes a great waypoint on a leisurely coastal drive. The town itself is charming and arty, with a great influence from the surrounding wine country. There are great small shops downtown, a number of tasting rooms and gourmet restaurants, and a relaxed vibe. Paso makes a great home base to explore the area, as it is close to Hearst Castle in San Simeon, and within a few miles of some great beaches, hiking, biking and other outdoor activities.
I check in to the hotel and call my sister Julie, who lives in nearby Los Osos. I have recruited Julie and her husband David to give me an insider’s tour of northern San Luis Obispo County, as they’ve been locals up here for the past 20 years or so. They pick me up in the official vehicle of SLO, an F-350 pickup, and take me out to see some of their favorite sites.
We cruise through downtown Paso, and I fall in love with the beautiful town square. Mature trees line shaded paths, and people walk their dogs past a public gazebo and a restored library building. The buildings in downtown all look like they date from the early 20th century, but they’ve been restored and repurposed as art galleries, restaurants and antique stores, mixed in with everyday businesses. It’s a relaxed, friendly town that reminds me of what Santa Barbara was 30 years ago.
David is acting as tour guide, and takes us out into the countryside to look at some of the wineries in the area. Because of the unique geography of the area, there are numerous microclimates in small valleys, and the vineyards give the whole region a very graphic, manicured look, interspersed with the wild look of native oak groves. The temperature can vary by 20 degrees or more over short distances, as ocean breezes bring cooling air to some areas, and direct sunlight heats up others. Every turn reveals new interest. It’s a great area to wander, and just soak up the atmosphere.
South of Paso sits the town of Atascadero. About the same size as Paso Robles, Atascadero has a slightly less affluent feel, but still has a charm all its own. Many of the houses in town were built on a modest scale in the early 20th Century, and many of the residential areas are nestled in the hills above the modest downtown. Though it is just a few miles from the ocean, Atascadero can be remarkably hot, with average temperatures over 90 degrees in the summer, and triple digits a regular occurrence.
In stark contrast, Morro Bay is a coastal village with a great view of Morro Rock, a 576-foot high volcanic plug that sits just offshore. Morro Bay is surrounded by state park land, and is a great place to hike, ride horses and bike.
David promised that I'd be interested in visiting the tiny town of Harmony – population 18. He was right. Harmony consists of a few old buildings and barns on a short main street. There's a glass blowing shop, a pottery, an art gallery and a cafe, and that's pretty much the whole town. There's a hippie vibe there – like no one told the folks in Harmony that the 60s ever ended. And they're all the better for it. It's really a gem, and the name Harmony seems to fit. It had better, when you could easily run into each of your neighbors on a daily basis.
Further along on Route 41, David pulls the F-350 off to the side of the road, and points across the two-lane toward a hilly yard. I look closely – and notice that there's a collection of life-size (I think) dinosaur statues scattered across the idyllic landscape! There's a sign on the fence that indicates that the house on the hill is the headquarters of Heritage Longboards – and apparently, they're big fans of dinosaurs. There are a couple of dozen dinosaur sculptures standing guard out in the field, including a Tyrannosaurus Rex who is chomping on a surfboard. No explanation – none needed. They just like dinosaurs.
We continue south on 41, and up crops another location that time forgot. The Last Stage West BBQ is in an old barn, and today a bunch of motorcycles occupy the parking lot. The main attraction, though – is an actual Yellow Submarine parked in front of the restaurant, surrounded by psychedelic cutouts of The Beatles, Old West cowboys, and other groovy standups. David explains to me that the submarine used to be a working model, built by a local eccentric. The restaurant owner took possession of it when it was retired, painted it yellow, and made it his place's signature. The Last Stage West BBQ features a full menu, bar and live music most nights. Cool. I'll have to get back here soon.
Julie and David take me back to Paso Robles, and we share dinner at Big Bubba's Bad BBQ, right next door to the BEST WESTERN PLUS Black Oak. It's a little bit kitschy, fun for the family, and quite good BBQ. A mediocre or truly bad BBQ place would never survive in California's Central Coast region, which is famous for its tri-tip. Big Bubba's has four locations in the Valley – which is evidence enough that they do BBQ right.
I say goodbye to Julie and David, thanking them for a great tour. I'm exhausted from a day of riding in traffic and touring in the hot sun, and thankfully, a clean, comfortable room is waiting for me at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Black Oak. I'm comforted by the fact that my CVO Limited is parked close to my first floor room –it'll be easy to pack up in the morning for my big day's ride.
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