Moto California

LOS ANGELES—After 9/11 and the unraveling of the US financial system that began in late 2008, images of collapse, decay, unemployment, class strife, and paranoia dominated my view of America. But, on this visit, the economic crisis I expected was not immediately visible.  What I saw, in fact, was a country that seemed to be struggling to free itself from forms of technology that had become dysfunctional. For example, commuters rendered immobile in freeways choking with single-passenger cars and monstrous “big rigs.” Here, it is easy to get the impression that modernity has reached a dead end, and technology has produced, not a working utopia, but a self-induced nightmare.

A different picture of the United States, however, slowly unfolds for me from the first moment I take to the streets of suburban California on a motorcycle. It is a Sunday, a perfect day for riding, perhaps anywhere in the world.  But, far away from the sweltering heat in Manila, it is springtime in America. Emerging onto the Brea Canyon road after an early breakfast of oranges, bread and coffee, I am grandly welcomed by a cool breeze, a bright sun, flowering trees, and the clearest of skies.

I am joined on this ride by my youngest brother Goli (age difference: 22 years) and our cousin George Gopiao. Three years ago, when I retired, Goli treated me to a memorable ride along the Pacific Coast Highway, staying in family-run bed-and-breakfast inns and stopping for meals in quaint cafés and the usual burger joints that serve humongous sandwiches and unlimited soda. That trip took us to as far as Merced, a jump-off point to Yosemite Valley. Mechanical trouble and foggy weather, however, prevented us from making the final ascent to Yosemite.

But this time, the bikes are in pristine condition, the weather extraordinarily bright and cool, and we are determined to complete the journey. The plan is to meet up the following day with seven other “bucket-listers” from the Hombres of Manila motorcycle group and their spouses, who, like me, had flown all the way from Manila to do this ride of a lifetime. The meeting point is Cannery Row in Monterey, a place immortalized by the American writer John Steinbeck. The riders and their back-up SUV are coming in from the San Francisco area. We, the “Brea boys,” are coming in from San Luis Obispo, where we spent the night.

Smart phones with their GPS-oriented maps make the navigation and coordination almost effortless. Soon, the Hombres find each other and instantly fill the Monterey air with jubilant Tagalog greetings and the macho growl of liter bikes.

Like a flock of wide-eyed tourists following a predesigned itinerary, we quickly dismount and leave our bikes at a parking lot manned by John, a homesick compatriot who could have been plucked out of Steinbeck’s novels. We assemble for a group photo in front of the Steinbeck monument, and pick a restaurant that serves seafood pasta and the signature clam chowder of American cuisine. The service is slow, but we are in no hurry.

Zeke Covarrubias, our host in Ripon, a small city near Modesto, does not expect us until around 6 p.m. for an early dinner. He and his gracious wife, Hannah, insist that all of us, 14 people in all, spend the night with them. “Mi casa es su casa,” Zeke, who has ridden with the Hombres in the Philippines, warmly tells us. And, what an unforgettable Mexican dinner they lay out for us!  Local riders Josh, Dave, Roy, and Ruthann join us. Their friendship and incomparable hospitality confirm everything that has been told about biker camaraderie.

Ripon is supposed to be only two-and-a-half hours away from Monterey. But it takes us nearly six hours before we finally reach the Covarrubias house. Anxiety floods our hearts when, at a gas station, we realize that we have lost half of our train. The missing group includes the most intrepid of us, Romy Bernardo, who, like me, cannot ride fast in the dark. But, more than that, Romy, who is hobbled by a spinal condition, needs to be able to rest his back after an hour of riding.

As often happens during group rides in unfamiliar terrain, some riders get lost after missing a crucial bend. On US highways, that means desperately looking for an exit that will bring you back to the correct route. Instead of a quick U-turn, you find yourself going a long way around. Frantic calls to their mobile phones go unanswered and we worry. Soon, they pause to make a call. Everyone is safe, but they are somewhere in Fremont, on a road that would take them back to San Francisco! Google Maps informs them where they are, and promptly puts them on the right track to Ripon. As our commander, Eric Mananquil, remembers it: “The final regrouping in Zeke’s garage was the noisiest ever when Romy finally pulled up amid cheers and applause.” He had been on the saddle continuously for over four hours. He’s exhausted but in good spirits. We take it as a good omen.

Wearing the widest grin as he gets off his iron steed, the 58-year-old Romy Bernardo jokingly asks, “Tell me, why do we do this?” And we all laugh, sharing in the ineffable joy of a riding buddy who finds himself testing his personal limits, and passes with flying colors. At that moment, I recall Nietzsche’s tribute to Emerson: “His gracious and clever cheerfulness discourages all seriousness. He does not know how old he is, and how young he’s still going to be.”

Filled with child-like wonder, we mount our bikes the following morning for the ultimate twisty ride to Yosemite Valley. Something about this place tells you how insignificant you are beside Nature, an ever-changing panorama of beauty and danger that science and technology can neither fully decipher nor improve upon.

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