Known for its great variety of country roads, hillside vineyards, valley vistas and ocean bluffs, California's central coast has long been a favorite locale for photo shoots. And for motorcyclists, the town of Paso Robles is a perfect base from which to launch a shamrock tour of this beautiful area.
Salinan Indians were the original settlers, followed later by Franciscan missionaries. Viniculture was first introduced in 1797, but it wasn't until 1882 that Andrew York established the region's first commercial winery. Today, local winemakers not only craft delicious and complex bottles of varietals, but their vineyards and tasting rooms make for fabulous eye candy to enjoy on your cruise. Cruising a little bit further to the west or east offers up a surf and turf special when it comes to riding. The coastline provides an ocean delicacy known as Route 1, while the inland pastureland offers vast rolling hills speckled with vineyards.
Astride the Yamaha Star Raider, I take Route 46 through a thick cluster of wineries and fond recollections. The rhythm of this road is irresistible, boasting more fast sweepers than an Olympic curling team. Nonetheless, a pause at its crest to take in the eagle's eye view of Morro Bay is a mandatory intermission to the concerto.
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In February, the temperature drops off as precipitously as the peak, and as I head northward onto Highway 1, passing the friendly artist colony of Cambria, I can feel the Pacific Ocean's influence. Hearst Castle's palatial profile looms high above the shoreline as I reach the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. While tourists swarm to gawk at the two-ton beasts, I park in front of what I know to be the holey hillside home of a particularly intrepid family of squirrels. Got nuts? Then you got amigos! And are they ever eager to remind you that sharing is what friendship is all about. A boy and his mother stop to watch the show as I feed one fuzzy fellow who has joined me on the Raider. Motioning the youngster over, I fill his hands with pistachios. The child's eyes bulge, first with apprehension, then delight, as his lap is soon filled with four venturesome snack-mates.
Departing the rookery, I ascend the cliffside route of the PCH, snapping off whip-like turns with hovering seagulls for an audience. My mind schizophrenically struggles to drink in the soaring ocean views while simultaneously attending to my dotted yellow lifeline. Turning inland at Nacimiento-Fergusson road, I leave the bay in my rearview mirror and follow a ravine between two steep peaks towards Fort Hunter-Liggett Army Base. I first-gear it through an hour of wet leaf and gravel-strewn, one-lane, and slalom switchbacks with nary a guardrail, reflector, or drop of yellow paint in sight. Not that the Raider acquitted itself badly at all, but this stretch definitely wasn't within the sweet spot of its design brief. As the tarmac straightens and I pass through the base on my way back to Paso Robles, surrounded by enormous herds of deer, target practice ranges, and an occasional roaming tank, ironically, I breathe a sigh of relief.
It's 7:00am, and as I load up the Raider's saddlebags outside the Courtyard Paso Robles, a soldier dressed in Army camos approaches to tell me he's based here at Fort Hunter-Liggett and how he's wanted to buy a bike for years. I invite him to throw a leg over, motioning for his wife and kids to come on over and join us. Dad beams proudly as I prop the munchkins up onto the pillion behind him one at a time. Then while tutoring the kids in the finer points of making "vroom-vroom" noises, I notice their mother's expression turning from a frown of early-morning impatience to a begrudging grin of bemusement. I nod knowingly to the soldier and raise an eyebrow in the direction of his wife. He gets the hint. "C'mon honey, climb up here behind me, you know you want to!" he implores, and amidst cheers from the kids, I watch as her guarded grin breaks into a delighted smile. I'm betting that soldier scores himself a new bike someday soon.
Underway, I take Highway 101 north past some enormous parceled vineyards and a pair of historic missions, San Miguel and San Marcos. As I reach my turnoff east onto Route 198, the sun finally emerges from a morning fog thick enough to spread like cream cheese. The winding two-lane road traverses moderate hillsides dotted with cattle, and I hope I'm not curdling Bessie's milk with the Raider's throaty exhaust note. When I pull off for a break, there is near perfect stillness and quiet here, and the sweeping vastness of arcadian vistas makes me want to breathe deeper and slower to take all of it in. I'm immediately rewarded by the aromatic whiff of a distant oak-burning fireplace. For me, that scent is the purest distillation of the essence of Paso Robles. It contains an unmistakable quality of welcoming, like an invitation to family… like coming home.