Editor’s Note – I wrote this article a month ago and debated whether or not to post it. I
didn’t want to seem overly dramatic but I do feel strongly about honoring our Greatest
Generation before they are relieved of their final duty and report home. This was
brought into sharp focus this week when I saw the news that Cpl Frank Buckles, the
last surviving American veteran of WWI, passed away on 27 February. He was 110
years old. Godspeed Cpl Buckles.
I know folks in the rest of the country don’t like to hear anyone from San Diego
complain about our winter weather, but we have had our share of rain this year. To
make matters worse, it always seems to rain on the weekend, or just prior to the weekend – which is almost just as bad. You see, the downside of having mountain/canyon
roads to carve is that when it rains – they inevitably get covered with loose debris carried
down from the hillsides bordering the road. For those intrepid souls who dare to brave 40
and 50 degree January morning temps (yes, that’s my attempt at poking fun at the rest of
the country) along the higher elevations, there is also the constant threat of sand from
road crews beating back the seasonal ice.
So it was that on a recent weekend, with temps in the 70’s, I set out for a three-hour round
robin on some of my favorite roads. Most of the lower roads were pretty good, and the
roads with faster sweepers that get more traffic were pretty clear as well. However, riding
some of my favorite, tighter roads at higher elevations was like walking through a half-
cleared mine field – just when you thought it was ok to pick up the pace… sand! I
remembered what one of my fellow pilots used to say “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”
and decided that tossing the bike into the road embankment would definitely not be
smooth – slow it is!
On the way home, I had one road left – Highland Valley Road – which is pretty well known
with riders throughout the county. It has a nice mix of tighter sections and some enjoyably
quick sweepers. However, it’s also a fairly convenient and somewhat scenic route to get
between I-15 and Ramona, and you’ll run into four-wheel traffic no matter when you ride.
Things initially looked good – a Nissan 300ZX in front of me pulled over to let me through,
but I soon could see an SUV up front that appeared to be moving pretty slowly and I was
approaching one of the tightest, and most fun, sections of the road. I pulled over and let
the Nissan by again, as well as a pickup truck and waited 30 seconds. That was the ticket!
I was able to push through the fun stuff at my own pace and didn’t catch the pickup until
just exiting the last 15 mph corner. Almost immediately the pickup returned the favor and
pulled over to let me past. A quick wave and a thumbs up and I was back in business… for
about a mile
I quickly realized that SUV was going pretty darn slow, and the 300ZX was now impatiently
tailgating. Now, I’m not one to say “never pass on a double yellow” but my zest for
crossing those lines has been tempered by 5 kids, a grandson, and a recent “chance to
excel” provided by CHP in the way of traffic school in lieu of at ticket for, you guessed it,
passing on a double yellow. The Nissan driver, apparently suffering from what we call in
the aviation world “No Apparent Fear of Death” decided to pass the SUV on the inside of
a curve approaching a blind hill… not my choice of locations. I could see the SUV driver
slow down as the Nissan passed – obviously he was doing the same mental calculation I
was “if a car tops that hill right now, this is gonna be a mess…” (Incidentally, a car DID top
the hill just as the Nissan pulled back into his lane – close call.) I stayed behind the SUV
looking for a better place to go around and wondering why the driver didn’t pull over at
any number of locations that looked reasonable.
I could see the driver was an elderly gentleman with several passengers. I noticed that
after the Nissan’s “damn the torpedoes” pass, the SUV was slowing noticeably more
anytime the sight-line through the curves was poor or approaching any rise. It was
obvious that the Nissan had rattled him so I backed off a bit. However, I was getting pretty
frustrated because I was running out of road with only a freeway blitz left in my ride. I
noticed another sport bike rider approaching from the rear and I moved right in case
he/she decided to go around. On a short straight, the sport bike did pull out and make the
pass – not particularly dangerous but not quite enough room for my comfort. The now
more nervous SUV driver braked and slowed as the sport bike shot past.
I had resigned myself to losing any chance of strafing the remaining apexes. I was thinking
to myself, “I’m going to give this guy a thumbs down when I pass”… when the side of the
road opened a bit and he pulled off to let me by. A quick wave and nothing but open road
ahead! It suddenly dawned on me that of any generation alive today, our elders are by far
the ones who are most likely to be considerate – just as I was looking for a place that was
comfortable for me to pass; he had been looking for a place that was comfortable for him
to pull over. And then a second, much more embarrassing, much more humbling thought
entered my mind “who could that guy have been?” His age appeared to put him at least in
Those withered hands I saw on the steering wheel… they might once have worked well
enough – though frostbitten and without feeling – to knock out a Panzer tank at the Battle
of the Bulge… those eyes that now needed shielding with wrap-around sunshades might
once have been sharp enough to give a young Ensign the jump on a pair of Zeros that
never knew what hit them over the Marianas… and that confidence that now betrayed him
at every curve and hill might once have held a young Marine steady through the night as
waves of Japanese soldiers crashed against Edson’s Ridge on Guadalcanal.
So ride fast, ride hard my friends. But before you gripe at the old guy in the SUV holding
up your Saturday morning, remember this – he just might have spent his Saturday
mornings, not really so long ago, saving the world.