One hundred and eighty five miles from Los Angeles, where we left behind stretch limos, luxury SUVs, and super cars clogging up multi-lane highways, where billboards the size of buildings promote the latest stars, and the modern world buzzes like the electrical power lines that light the whole madness, another world exists.
Out under the stars in the open desert the smell of body odor and pot threaten to overwhelm my senses, as the manic drum beat from a young, bearded man in a toga, drives the out of tune singing of a guitar slinging hippy who also seems impervious to the cold. Young mothers with dreadlocks, fling shoeless children around in time to the music as night comes down on the Range, the outdoor music venue made famous in the movie, “Into the Wild.” Off in the distance, the sky is lit from the fire of a burning trailer, apparently an act of discipline handed out to an unwanted resident by the community of post-apocalyptic residents living off-the-grid in Slab City. And there in the middle of it all is Brad Barker and his merry band of pranksters, who have mostly all arrived on brand new BMWs in state of the art riding gear, blending in with the great unwashed the way oil mixes with water.
Flying out to California with my girlfriend Andrea a few days earlier, the best I could tell her was, we would be riding a BMW K1600 GTL with a guy called Brad Barker, and a bunch of his friends, somewhere in California. Details were sketchy, like, where we would meet, what we would do, and where we would stay. I could tell her that I’d spent an hour or so with Brad at an Overland Expo, that my good friend Allan Karl was showing up, and that Nick Calderone fromhttp://www.rightthisminute.com/ would be there with his fiance. What more could she possibly need to know as we headed out for a week of adventure in California?
Thankfully, by the time we landed I knew to head to BMW of Riverside to find the K1600, and that Brad had set up camp with a mob of villains in Palm Desert. Andrea seemed pleased there was a destination for the night as we pulled up at the dealership to find two hairy, bearded, road-warriors on battled-scarred BMW GS1200s greeting us with open arms. If there was ever going to be a moment she turned tail and ran this was it, as we met Owen and Evan Firstman, part of Brad’s merry band. Owen Balduf happens to be the top BMW GS salesman in North America, and I’ve heard tales of his legendary behaviors on various grapevines in the past. Nick was already there with his fiancé Rosalie gearing up, and before too long we were riding out across Highway 74 en route to Palm Desert.
As the man behind http://www.therideofmylife.net/ Brad Barker had an idea to create an episode where he would bring together an eclectic group of motorcyclists, from all walks of life to ride, talk, play music, and visit some of the weirdest and most beautiful places California has to offer. He even had the legendary Jim Hyde, ofhttp://www.rawhyde-offroad.com/ along for the ride, and a full film crew to document the experience.
So waking up to a cloudless day in California there was a fantastic buzz in the air. We had slept well, breakfasted, and made sure we were layered up as we rolled out into the vast desert. For a couple of east coast dwellers, the early morning sun lighting the mountains to the west had us pointing and gesturing at the uniqueness of our surroundings. Heading for the Salton Sea, our first major stop was the world famous Banana Museum in Mecca, a place that apparently exists in the Guinness book of records. Business for the museum must be slow these days as the owner was nowhere to be found, so we took some pictures and rolled on.
The sky was so clear it could pierce, as I watched dirty, muscular freight trains pulling long lines of carriages up and down the valley. To our right the water shimmered and pretty soon we were heading into the town of Bombay Beach. Bombed out Beach might have been more fitting, as we scampered around the once burgeoning tourist trap, now sinking into the toxic sand among dead fish, rusting re-bar, and blocks of crumbling concrete. The spray painted sign, “Abandon all hope ye who enter” should have put us off, but we were clearly on a mission to find the bizarre so climbed off and had some fun.
Leaving Salvation Mountain we cruised back into the one horse town of Niland. Or perhaps I should say the one Mule town, as we were soon engaged in a highly interesting conversation with “Cuervo,” and his Mule, “Rock n Roll.” Cuervo is a desert dweller who has ridden most of the Southwest and into Mexico on four legs, and I could have spent the day photographing him and learning about his life. Brad was beating the drum though, cheesy pre-reference to our next adventure, and after finishing our sandwiches at the Buck Shot Deli we headed out to the Range for an evening of music and people watching.
Rolling out to the event, we passed multiple trailers and school buses hunkered down in the sand, with no power or running water, these people are truly living off the grid. The sun was burning the horizon a deep, blazing orange as we parked up, and Brad, Owen, Even, and Allan signed in to play some music for the fast-growing crowd.
Andrea soon had a front row seat for the show as I made conversation with a young man called Ivory. At 32-years-old, he has spent the last 17 years on the road, and patting his ample belly told me life was good as he was well fed and happy. An engaging young man, he hitchhikes, or hops freight trains, to travel anywhere in America whenever he wants. I heard a number of similar stories from various travelers and musicians at the event and they certainly enjoy their carefree lives. Either living happily out here in the desert, making music, or roaming the country free from the trappings of our material life that keep us bound, it was great to meet and talk with such interesting folk.
It was certainly fascinating to observe the scene, where clearly the length of your dreadlocks, or the state of decay your clothes place you in a hierarchy we clearing didn’t fit into with our brand new BMW riding suits. Time on the road was a key point I heard from Stick Mann, John the blues guitarist, and Ivory, and I was impressed with the open dialogue as checkered pasts were not something anyone was hiding. Clearly a big part of the community is the music, and as I watched some of the younger people’s reaction to the middle-aged straight with the camera taking pictures, I had to smile as I wondered how my world travels over the past decades would register among this crowd?
By the time our guys hit the stage the place was packed, and from the first drum beats from Brad, electric violin chords from Owen, and guitar rifts from Evan and Allan, it was clear they were in a class above. Rocking the house for a few songs, the dancing was frenetic and atmosphere insane. Clouds of billowing pot smoke mingling with the unbelievable odor of hundreds of people living without running water, it was good to be back in the saddle of the land yacht gulping clean air as soon as the set was over and we could leave.
Over the next couple of days we re-lived the ride, took more to Joshua Tree and beyond, made more music, and told more stories. We lived, we learned, we laughed, and made friends with the coolest group of people you could imagine. It’s now confirmed that Brad Barker is mad, clearly having the ride of his life, and the good news is Andrea is still talking to me and eager to come back for the next adventure. In a month or three you’ll be able to see our adventures on http://www.therideofmylife.net and stayed tuned here athttp://www.nealebayly.com for more of mine.
Neale Bayly – Writer – http://www.nealebayly.com/
Brad Barker – TheRideofMyLife.net