©By Sam Taylor
In any number of ways, Marin County is unique. Positioned just north of San Francisco, it is accessible in only 3 basic ways: across the Golden Gate Bridge from the City, across the Richmond/San Rafael bridge from the East Bay, (and the East in general), and from the relatively sparsely populated North Coast down US 101. The Golden Gate was finished in 1937, the Richmond bridge in 1954, and 101 did not achieve its freeway status--bypassing the towns--until the 50s, too. Marin, therefore, was not opened up to typical suburban development until relatively late, and by then, other forces were in place that would make this little jewel of a county, so close to the 7 million people sprawl that has become the Bay Area, a motorcyclists’ paradise.
It was my turn in the barrel. I had accepted my “volunteer” assignment as the July Day Rideleader for the Montgomery Street Motorcycle Club, with whom I ride. The Club has members from all over the Bay Area, and most live within a quick jaunt (OK, slog, if it’s at rush hour) over to Marin. Since I live in Larkspur, (Marin County) I thought it would be fun to take them on a refresher course of some of my favorite Marin roads, just as a reminder of how good we really have it here, and because I was far too lazy to figure out a route anywhere else.
Now, I don’t lead many rides. In fact, I’ve never led an official Club ride before, but since our Club is mainly known for ambitious overnighters, I figured for a lousy Day Ride we’d only have a small group of maybe 5 or six bikes. All I’d have to do would be wile away 3 or 4 hours around Marin--my backyard, essentially--and we’d go to a party at member Bill Bremer’s house in swanky Tiburon. I copied a few maps at the office, but they blew out of my badly bungeed briefcase on the way home Friday. Oh well, I thought, I can keep an eye on 5 bikes
Twenty-four motorcycles assembled at the Corte Madera Denny’s on Sunday. I was so panicked, I couldn’t touch my Grand Slam. Twenty-four bikes --only a few Marin natives--and me without maps. What the hell was I thinking?.
In retrospect, the one advantage of not handing out written maps or instructions is that the Club has to hang together, or we shall surely hang separately, as the saying goes. Also in retrospect, it’s kind of a hoot to see 24 bikes slogging their way up Sir Francis Drake Boulevard: not only is it a pretty impressive collection of hardware, but it serves notice to the pram-pushing, Bimmer driving, cappuccino-sipping yupped-out drones of Marin that there is still room in the County for bohemian tastes and anti-establishment flair. Of course, the collection of newish BMWs, Harleys, and Ducatis The Club was sporting took some of the combat out of the crusade. Nevertheless, what we lacked in implicit social commentary we made up for in swagger, style, and shine.
Soon enough, though, the posing was over, and I sweat my last bullet in Fairfax, a lovely place where it takes 4 cycles of a new stoplight to get everyone through town. 1990’s progress now behind us, we began to open it up as we climbed the north side of Mt. Tamalpais via the Fairfax-Bolinas Road.
The Fairfax-Bolinas road is on most maps of sufficient scale of the Bay Area, but it has always scared off drivers because it is shown as gated and occasionally closed (which it is). A small two laner for the first 5 miles or so up to a private Golf club, it soon reverted to its origins as a paved over dirt road--part of the first one to go to the Pacific from San Rafael. Now in the Marin Municipal Water District watershed, we proceeded with some good haste along dips and switchbacks, the smell of hot fennel in the air, seeing glimpses of the greenish serpentine rock faces common on Tam but rare elsewhere in the Bay Area. After a dip into the cool forest we arrived at Alpine Dam.
Alpine Dam is the only concrete dam in the 7-reservoir Marin system that covers--and consequently preserves--so much of western Marin County. Built in 1918 by artisans and workers who were the great grandfathers of the many Italian-American families still in the North Bay, it’s an impressive piece of work that spans Lagunitas Creek’s chasm and creates Alpine Lake. With the tall Douglas Firs lining the shorelines and the peaks of Mount Tam above, one can understand how it got its name. Since there’s so little traffic crossing the dam, it’s a great spot to park the bikes for a rest and to take in the views.
The road narrows further as we entered the redwoods for the final climb up to the Tam ridgeline. A rider is quickly reminded to watch his speed as the combination of dirt, pine needles, and the moisture (that is always right in the apex of all turns) combine to add some challenge. Even on the sunniest of days, the redwoods at the top of the ridge, just miles now from the ocean, will collect moisture and deposit “faux rain” right on the road.
Once on the ridge, we soon broke out of the forest to ride along a road often used for making out and filming German car commercials. Ridgecrest is a great road with only 2 basic problems: one, it’s populated by deer, hikers, bicyclists, and expectant hang gliders. Not too many of any one of them, but just enough to surprise. Two, the view to the east of San Francisco Bay is nearly as captivating as the view to the west of the Pacific Shoreline and the Point Reyes Peninsula, so that your head keeps whipping back and forth instead of staying focused rigidly ahead (watching for low hanging gliders). There is also a turn or too where it’s easy to lose part of your group if you’re a hapless ride-leader, as I was.
So some went left, to the actual top of Tam (and a dead end), and some went right, down to overlook Mill Valley. This part of the road is used by locals who live in Stinson Beach and are traveling to or from the real world, so if you catch it at non-tourist time you can be relatively assured of dealing with professionals who drive quickly and/or let you pass. Otherwise, woe to the rider who won’t pass on the double yellow.
We continued on down to Muir Woods and blasted on out to Highway 1. Technically, this road contradicts what I mentioned earlier about there being only 3 ways into Marin, because you could use 1 to come down from the north--if you had lots of time and loved looking at the rear ends of Winnebagos. For the rest of us, or those not blessed with motorcycles, the beauty and charm of this twisty, cliff-hugging route is best appreciated as recreation, not transportation. Riders of the famed “Sunday Morning Ride” which uses this route, would certainly agree.
So Route 1 is well-known, and well-traveled, and we sometime dismiss it as a “ride” because of that and because we’ve done it before. We shouldn’t. There will always be something primordially thrilling to the motorcyclist as he powers out of a 10mph (signed) switchback and heads right toward the ocean, 500 feet below, just before leaning over into a hairpin praying the oncoming traffic respects the center line. Midway through the turn, your eyes are assaulted with a killer view of the Bolinas Lagoon and target fixation threatens to carry you over the side. Don’t laugh; it happens all the time--don’t ask how I know.
After the little town of Stinson Beach, the road stays at sea level as it winds around the Lagoon. For my money, this is one of the best spots around to thank the Lord you ride. The curves are almost sweepers, the road is in good shape, and you are sandwiched between the happy seals in the water and the bright-white egrets in the dark-green Redwoods. Idyllic scenery.
It was at this point I remembered I was leading 23 motorcycles so I checked my mirrors and saw most of them behind me. Damn, guess I wasn’t going fast enough. We stopped in the “town” of Olema, which is not much more than the crossroads of Rt. 1 and our old friend Sir Francis Drake Blvd, now denuded of stoplights and traffic. Though we didn’t eat there that day, a hungry biker could enjoy some oyster stew at the Farm House, or--if he’s feeling fancy--a great meal at the Olema Inn. In fact our Club knows the Inn well as it has traditionally been the site of our ritual black-tie Christmas ride, brunch, and general gorging.
After regrouping (and retorqueing the Harleys), we headed out to Limantour Beach. Limantour is the southern side of the great scythe made by the Point Reyes Peninsula, which in turn owes its existence to a different tectonic plate than the one on which most of the rest of North America resides. Near here you can find the epicenter of the San Francisco’s great earthquake of 1906. In fact, the geology and topography change noticeably as you sweep on out to the beach on roads which afford the bikes a chance to really test maximum lean angles. On the way to Limantour we picked up not only speed, but, unfortunately, a Golden Gate National Recreation Area Park Ranger too, who had apparently recently installed some 1/2 inch rebar in the darker part of his anatomy. His annoying habit of going 25 miles an hour emboldened one of our GS riders, who--two up, no less--would take every blind corner opportunity to gain about 1/4 mile on the following Ranger. Funny how that black GS, going no faster than the Ranger, disappeared completely from his sight after the third or forth bend. Indeed, BMW GSs love it here, but my RS is pretty happy, too. As usual, there’s a VFR or ZX-11 out ahead who’s having a pretty good time as well.
The beach itself is a pretty well-kept secret. While most of the Bay Area’s urbanites head for the crowds at Stinson, Limantour is almost always nearly empty. Plus, its nearly perfect southern exposure is key for those of us who still worship a good pre-cancerous tan. Of course, the weather on the coast can be generously described as iffy, and has absolutely no relationship to the weather anywhere else in the area. You pays your money....
By the time we assembled at the beach there were 3 Park Service Broncos very interested in the Club. I mean, how many can there be? And we rated 3 of them? We were escorted back the way we came and only 2 or 3 of us fell asleep on what is otherwise a great little road.
We continued onward through the town of Pt. Reyes Station. Despite the recent disturbing trend of coffee-shop sprawl, the Station is still home to the Western Saloon, an authentic bar in the great long-bar/pool-table/live-bands-on-weekend tradition. Lots of history to be found here, and real people, too. Stop in some time.
Continuing up route 1, the road tightens up again before straightening out near the bustling town of Marshall, home of the Hog Island Oyster Company, and a couple of bay-side eateries, Tony’s and Nick’s. The bay by the way, is Tomales Bay, a shallow but wide stretch of water that opens up into the Pacific about 15 miles north and has become the happy home of some of the greatest, plumpest, juiciest oysters it’s ever been my pleasure to slurp down. The Hog Island Company will sell you live oysters at an unbelievably low price. All you have to do is fit them in your saddlebags and cart them home, where you can bar-b-que them (recommended) or shuck them and eat them raw (good, but hard work). Spend the next day cleaning oyster mung out of your bags and off your pipe, as they spit and vomit all the way home.
Just past Marshall, we bade farewell to the bounties of the sea and turned inland, across the Marshall-Petaluma Road and Roller-Coaster, a road definitely less traveled. After passing nothing but beautiful, pastoral scenery for miles, we reassembled (people and Harleys) at Wilson Hill. Here I gave, in a most ride-leaderly manner, more directions which sounded like “Nicasio” to me but like “Novato” to others. This caused a large contingent of my group to miss the Marin Cheese Factory, a great place to stop, eat, and play with the geese. At this point though, my thoughts were of regaining control, so I passed the Cheese Factory and proceeded, at a high rate of speed, to tear up the wide roads around Nicasio--all in the interest of catching up with my errant flock, of course. Riders less stressed than I was should really stop at the Rancho Nicasio, a combination bar/restaurant/dance floor/convenience shop/post office that pretty much does it all for this lovely little town.
By the time I got past Nicasio I’m down to leading about 5 bikes. After one of them (a guest, thankfully, because a Club member would have been flogged) ran out of gas around George Lucas’s Skywalker ranch, I found myself waiting at the highway on-ramp at Lucas Valley Road all alone, watching the Novato contingent drive by me down 101. *Sigh*.
In the end, Marin County saved my butt. No one noticed what a lame job I’d one as ride-leader. Everyone raved about how beautiful these backroads are, how seldom we’d ridden them in the last few years. I enjoyed it so much, I did it again just last week, on one of our rare warm Indian summer nights, and it was wholly the same, and wholly different. Guaranteed good for what ails you.