By Ancil K. Nance (Note, this was my first freelance-submitted and paid-for story, MOTORCYCLE WORLD, October 1973)
The weather forecast said rain but we had been itching for a long ride all winter…it was time to break out of the city and let the miles curve and twist beneath the tires of our ’72 Norton 750 Commando. Despite the rain, we decided to take a spring ride to San Francisco, going down the Oregon and California coasts. Would a Norton 750 Roadster make a good touring bike? How far could we ride in comfort? These and other questions filtered through my mind as my friend Helen and I left Portland, heading south. Soon we were lost in the throaty roar of the mufflers as we cruised toward the coast, slowing for an occasional small town. The worn asphalt was wet and slippery, so we took it easy on the curves, letting the pipes back off, resonating among the tall Douglas fir trees.
Coming around one curve we stopped to get a closer look at a mail box on a 20-foot pole marked “AIR MAIL.” I wondered how many people had driven off the road, looking back at that bit of humor. The road dried as we neared the coast; the sun started shining through holes in the clouds, and I leaned the Norton began harder and faster through the corners. Despite the sun it was chilly, and we began looking for a place to get some clam chowder.
We found an abandoned hotel that had a sign saying “CRABS’ above an unused fireplace. There was no glass in the windows, the inside had never been completed, a hulk of desolation, a monument to an unfilled dream. No luck. We continued our search for hot clam chowder, leaving the abandoned dream staring blankly in four directions. Passing numerous signs beckoning us to “EAT” in the new restaurants along the main highway, we found our way down a back street to the waterfront at Newport.
Here, by the bay, in view of fishing boats and the delicate arches of the Yaquina Bay bridge, we had clam chowder at “Mo’s”…it was well worth the search.
Heading south again I noticed that there was a slight miss in the engine when I poured it on hard to pass campers and trailers. We pulled over at Sea Lion Caves to look for the cause of the miss. At Sea Lion Caves some people will let you use their elevator for a fee of $1.50 to go down the cliffs and see Oregon’s largest herd of sea lions. A young man sneaked out of a hut near the parked cars and wired a SEA LION CAVES banner to bumpers as the occupants went for the view.
I found the source of the miss…the right spark plug cap had jiggled loose. Norton’s Isolastic suspension protects the rider but not the engine. Also loose were the cylinder barrel base bolts…oil was seeping out. The crank case breather tube had jiggled around also and there was a worn spot near where it rubbed on the engine. I wrapped black tape over that spot. With the tube taped and the nuts tightened, we left Sea Lion Caves, following the long curves of Highway 101 that swept close to several precipitous cliffs which soon give way to sand dune and lakes.
Just beyond the small town of Florence, we stopped at Honeyman State Park, where 200-foot high sand dunes sloped to a clear lake. The sun was setting behind the highest dune, and it was windy and cold. We could only imagine how nice this place might be in the summer sun. We moved out from the dune’s lengthening shadow as we headed back to the highway. The setting sun was leaving a dry road, and the stretch from Honeyman to Gardiner was pure pleasure, with many high speed curves, banked just right for an 80 MPH lean.
Low clouds settled in further south at
Reedsport where some houseboats were almost lost in the gloom as they floated in a shallow backwater near the highway. The white paint on the houses reflected the last rays of daylight, saving them from obscurity. Further on we passed through patches of hail, piled an inch deep on the road; it was getting cold and was now raining again. It was dark by the time we pulled over at a motel in Coos Bay. That night we ate at a Chinese food place. The waitress was young and bubbled over with greetings. She told us that she used to ride with her husband, but they had to sell their Harley Sportster when their baby was born. One or the other had to go and the baby won, she said. “For how long?” Helen wondered. Country music played over the juke box.
That night the Norton sat out in the rain, but in the morning it started after only three kicks, a choke, and a little tickle. Once again we filled the small 2.7 gallon tank and followed 101 as it twisted and turned above the cliffs, and dipped across the border into California, winding through the Redwoods to Crescent City and Eureka.
The air was damp and cold going among the tall trees, but the road stayed dry for the most part, and the Norton burbled and roared along smoothly. We stopped at the Trees of Mystery to assess this example of commercial grossness, complete with a pale blue-colored “Blue Ox” beside the 30-foot tall Paul Bunyan. The parking lot lay empty, waiting like a black asphalt swamp to trap the droves of summer tourists.
By way of contrast, on the mudflats north of Eureka there were some appealing stick sculptures. One in particular was well done, looking much like an abandoned airplane . It was made with scraps of lumber and sticks available there on the mudflat. A slow freight passed close by and the engineer blew the train whistle when we waved. The place had a good feeling about it…like someone had fun there, and no one was asking us for some money just to take a look.
After taking a few pictures, we went on to Eureka to get a bite to eat. Outside a restaurant, we were greeted by a very old gent who was about to assist his wife into their Cadillac. He wanted to know what kind of bike it was we were riding…he hadn’t heard of a Norton before. He also asked if Harleys were still being made…he remembered riding one in World War I but hadn’t ridden since then. I felt as though he had been in another world for the past 50 years, and had just returned, landing in Eureka to catch up on what’s been happening. After looking over the Norton, he wished us good luck and drove away. We left shortly also, continuing through more redwoods to Garberville.
The owner of the motel where we stayed that night had a ’72 Honda 500 Four, with a fairing and nice gold fleck paint. He said that he and his wife found the bike just right for touring and that he wouldn’t be without the fairing. I remained doubtful, thinking that there had only been a few times thus far on the trip when I would have appreciated the protection of a fairing…the rest of the time it felt good to be close to the road and the wind, each reaching and pulling, trying to make me one with them. The next morning we headed for the coast on Highway 101 and then on to Highway 1, the Shoreline Highway. The section of this road between Leggett and Rockport rose in tight curves and sharp C-bends one after another to the top of a ridge and then descended in a similar manner to a winding valley that led to the ocean. One curve followed another in close succession. This was 25 miles of pure exhilaration that required absolute concentration as we rode the Norton to its limits, on a road for which it was made. Everyone has a favorite road…this one is mine. After it reached the coastline, Highway 1 wasn’t as tight, but it still had its good sections, which were now becoming clogged with cars, campers and trucks…we would scoot past one group only to be slowed by another car clot.
At Gualala we stopped at the grocery to get some apples and cheese for a lunch, which we ate on an abandoned, weed-covered road just past the bridge at Gualala. There the noise of the cars and the crashing of the waves did not compete, and the wind seemed to pass right over, letting the warmth of the sun penetrate us.
After an hour, we reluctantly left this hideaway and got back into traffic, zipping around cars when we had room to move. We continued dodging among the cars until we came to an interesting old building on Tomales Bay. At one time it had been the Marshall train station. Now it was sort of a restaurant where people could eat and listen to live music. We parked near a broken barrel full of garbage, leaving the Norton under the watchful eyes of two young boys who were eager to get their picture taken and seemed to be having a blast pushing each other around in a hand cart.
That Sunday afternoon a classical flute player and a piano player were making music in the main dining room. After a few numbers they passed a hat and collected a few coins for their efforts. As we were leaving, a Dunstall Norton flew by, followed by a Triumph with lowered handle bars, then came a gal on a Honda and two guys on a Suzuki. More cars and then another motorcycle followed. Traffic was getting thick. By the time we made it back on the road, too many cars had come between us to enable us to catch up with the other cycles…we were only able to make a few passes before having to chase several cows off the road and back to the pasture. Everyone was getting a good laugh, except maybe the cows, who appeared confused by all the special attention. After that diversion, traffic slowed even more and the day got longer. We were only able to creep along the beautiful curves of Highway 1 between Stinson Beach and Sausalito.
By the time we got back to the freeway leading to the Golden Gate Bridge, cars were filling all four lanes and moving at a crawl. We left the freeway, toured Sausalito’s little shops and spent the night at a dirty little motel…it has a dust covered radio with a sign stating that for a dime, the radio would play for half an hour…it looked like a losing bet so I didn’t try.
We spent the next day cruising the hilly streets of San Francisco, digging the old buildings and other sights like all good tourists do. Second gear leveled all the hills and coming down presented no problems for the Norton’s shoe brakes, which were quick and reliable. The following day, a Tuesday, we had our only problem. The right Amal began to flood continuously. The day before it had only flooded a couple of times. After putting in a new float needle and adjusting the chain for the second time during the trip, we took a run through Golden Gate Park and then headed for 101 North, returning through the Redwoods, where we saw a herd of elk traversing a meadow.
The trip back was uneventful, except for some extreme cold in the mountains between Crescent City and Grants Pass, along Highway 199. Hail and snow forced us to slow down, and the cold bit through our rain gear, leathers and long johns. As soon as we left the mountains and dropped down into the Illinois River Valley the warm sunshine returned. The sun continued throughout the next day and we had a fast trip up Interstate 5, getting to Portland sooner than planned.
Before the trip my friends had all told me that the Norton would fall apart before we got out of Oregon, so I had been prepared for the worst. As it turned out, however, the engine performed well, the ride was smooth, and nothing fell off…although we did have to tighten a few nuts once. Chain adjustments were simple, taking less than ten minutes. The average gas mileage was 40 MPG (with two people and a pack). I found the seat comfortable for about three hours. Highway pegs and a sissy bar enabled us to lean back, which proved to be the most comfortable riding position. On the freeways, speeds of 70 and 80 were comfortable for long stretches…no handlebar vibration and a rock solid feel to the bike. The bike sat out in the cold and rain every night but started each morning after a few kicks. There were times when I needed to use all of the Norton’s power to pass cars, but most of the time the machine just loafed along…it turned less than 4,500 RPM at 80 MPH. The bike was capable of chugging around town in a well mannered fashion, and its light weight made close maneuvers a cinch…especially for a big bike. The Norton served us well on the freeways, mountain roads, and city streets.