Voices from the Road

My first motorcycle camping road trip—but definitely not the last

Pack. Unpack. Pack again. I knew I was over packing, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave things I might miss. One hour before we were supposed to leave, I was running around buying bungee cords. Five minutes before, I did a final assessment and dropped a bunch of things (including some that I would actually come to need).

I was feeling a bit anxious. Maybe it was the trip, or maybe my motorcycle accident years back. Maybe the fact that I hadn’t traveled since masks and hand sanitizer became part of our daily lives, or maybe it was just jitters because I’d never taken a proper motorcycle road trip before. So far my experience had been limited to riding around town and always being back home for dinner.

My friend Victor arrived and it was time to go. I mentioned I was feeling a little restless and in his most zen voice he said, “It’s normal.” And just like that, I started to feel more at ease. Making this road trip happen required what felt like an act of congress—coordinating my schedule with my wife’s and Victor’s, asking for time off work, you get it. Rain was in the forecast but as I had mentioned to a friend a few days before, “Rain or shine, come hell or high water, we’re going!”

Galleta Meadows

A few months earlier, when I mentioned to Victor that Joshua Tree National Park sounded beautiful and that I’d never been, his immediate response was, “Well, let’s go! When are you free?” I love that about him. He needs no explanation or convincing. Always ready at the go.

So, with our bikes packed, tanks full of gas and all the excitement in the world we began our journey, leaving San Diego through Poway, Ramona, and Julian. The sun was shining through patches of plump dark clouds that kept following us and letting us know that rain was still a possibility.

We were getting close to Borrego Springs and the curves leading down into the valley are not for the faint of heart. I remember thinking—maybe even whispering inside my helmet—“Go in slow, get out fast” and “Drop a gear” over and over, almost like a mantra.

We made it to Borrego Springs and started checking out the town’s metal sculptures, made by a local artist and placed throughout the desert. My favorites were of a dragon, scorpion, grasshopper, and Jeep. I know we missed a bunch because there are more than 100 of them scattered through the Galleta Meadows. I loved the juxtaposition of art and nature, the softness of the ever changing sand and the rigid permanence of steel. In a way it becomes a type of natural interactive art.

After checking out the sculptures for a while, we felt it was time for lunch. With not a lot of options available, we stopped by a cafe. I was expecting typical roadside lunch options: prepackaged sandwiches, microwave burritos, and things like that. What a pleasant surprise it was to find a place who prided itself in running a successful restaurant where Sysco trucks are few and far between. I ordered a flank steak salad and Victor a club sandwich, and both were just outstanding. So much for roughing it on the road.

Outrunning the rain

Growing up in the desert (Sonora, Mexico), one becomes a bit of a natural weatherman. The sweet smell of the air and the sudden drop in temperature announced the imminent arrival of rain way before the droplets started to fall on us as we were finishing our meal. We got back on our bikes and decided to outrun it. Victor was getting worried about the rain and our plans to camp. It was my time to return the favor. “Whatever,” I announced. “Let’s keep riding and if camping is no longer an option, we’ll find a motel.” 

After Salton City, the wind was beating hard on us and it was particularly hard on the 62, closer to Joshua Tree, as we were making our way up the hill that eventually would lead us to our campground. Suddenly, my bike started to jerk a little and I regretted missing that gas station a few miles back. “I’ll fill up at the next exit,” I had thought to myself—only there were no gas stations for a few exits. However, I had planned for situations like these, knowing that I have a small tank, and quickly reached for my fuel bottle. We really lost only a couple of minutes and made it to the next gas station safely. I would be reminded of Victor’s “superior throttle control” every time we got gas thereafter.

Finally, we made it to Joshua Tree National Park. To get to our campsite, we had to slalom our way through the potholes on a dirt road. It wasn’t a big deal, but it still made me feel like Ted Simon, Charley Boorman, or Alicia Sornosa—famous motorcycle adventurers somewhere on the other side of the world. Setting up our tents was a bit challenging because of the wind, but we still got it done before dark. 

With our bikes unloaded, we rode back into town looking for firewood. After returning to camp, we fired up a little backpacking stove and boiled water to make tea. I had packed a Bluetooth speaker to listen to music, like I usually do, but the silence was dense and commanding, definitely not something I’m used to anymore. Just like that, under a blanket of stars, I decided not to play music and just enjoy the experience. I was awoken by the wind and howling coyotes around 4 a.m. While we didn’t see any wildlife up close, the coyotes kept reminding us that they were around.

The first of many road trips

We started day two by brewing coffee, and then were off to riding again. Riding through the park, we stopped at the Cholla Cactus Gardens to check out the scenery and take a break, and we met two brothers who had ridden their motorcycles down from Montana. We then made a big loop to the south and west, returning to Joshua Tree. 

We rode around for the next couple of days and clocked a total of 562.5 miles, and while our camping trip was both a challenge (due to space constraints) and a success, I realized my favorite part was being on the road, wheels spinning, outrunning rain and trying to squeeze a few more miles out of a tank of gas.

In the end, my tale is not one of thousands of miles, dealing with uncooperative border agents or illnesses, but one of friendship and overcoming—or adapting, rather—to the uncertainty of a partially open world trying to get going after a global shutdown. A trip that most certainly opened the door for many more to come.

Polo’s trip

Meet the Roadtripper

Polo Rubio