Return of Llano to Isabella

When I was a toddler drooling on the tires of my dad’s Norton P11 as he worked in our garage, the highlight of my year was Llano to Isabella. Technically just a casual trail ride that Dad organized every spring, this event was the equivalent of the Indianapolis 500 in my young eyes—a momentous motorsports occasion that I dreamed of one day participating in myself (beyond merely playing in the dirt at the ride’s various pit stops, that is).

The course ran 200 miles, from our home in Southern California’s Antelope Valley to the Piute Mountains in the southern Sierra Nevada range. Without the benefit of GPS, Dad used to spend evenings plotting each year’s route using a combination of topographic maps and recollections from past District 37 off-road races like the Pasadena Motorcycle Club’s semi-legendary Greenhorn Enduro.

Eventually, I was old enough to experience a couple of sections from the back of Dad’s P11, and when I was given my own XR75 at age 12, he allowed me to join the adults for most of the ride. (I couldn't do the last stretch from Red Rock Canyon State Park to Lake Isabella's Hungry Gulch Campground, for which street legality was required.) Due solely to the fact that I was the trail boss’s son, I was tolerated by the veterans, a colorful lot with names like Uncle Corky, Chucko, Spats, Neil, Wimpress, and the Eaton brothers. When my aunt married, Uncle George was introduced to dirt bikes via Llano to Isabella, his infallibly good nature more than enough to overcome the ribbing he took for riding a two-stroke.

 The author (No. 7C) prepares to join the grown-ups on an early edition of the Llano to Isabella. ( Nancy Jonnum photo )

The author (No. 7C) prepares to join the grown-ups on an early edition of the Llano to Isabella. (Nancy Jonnum photo)

As I grew old enough to recognize that the event wasn't quite as significant as I’d previously imagined, I did what I could to actually make it so, arranging a makeshift pit area in our horse corral and fashioning a start-line banner by painting LLANO - ISABELLA on an old bed sheet and stringing it above the gate. I advanced to a plated XR200R at age 15, but I still had to wait for my driver license to complete the last section, by which point my interests were tending more toward high-school sports and my budding racing hobby. By the time I headed off to college, my occasional participation in the Llano to Isabella had come full circle, as I served as pit captain in what turned out to be the final edition. Any chance of a revival disappeared when my parents moved out of the desert following their retirements, and even our once-familiar tales from past editions of the ride were in peril due to the relative rarity of get-togethers with my dad's old crew—several of whom are now lost to the land where all the trails are perfect.

Late last year, I found myself alone for the holidays when I was unable to join my wife and daughter on a holiday trip to Italy with my in-laws, and as is sometimes the case in such situations, I was feeling somewhat nostalgic. For some reason, the Llano to Isabella came to mind, and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to do a solo attempt at recreating the ride aboard my Africa Twin. After some late-night planning (with some help from Garmin BaseCamp and Rever), I awoke pre-dawn on Christmas Eve and braved the frigid freeway slog out to our old house, which I hadn’t visited in a couple of decades. Its sorry state didn't match my idyllic childhood memories, nor did my halting progress along the route's early miles, which now seemed to be a tour of meth labs and fence-blocked trails.

After refueling at Kramer Junction, I finally hit pay dirt in the form of a flowy two-track paralleling Highway 395, which I remembered as a reliable favorite from the past. Next was a side trip to the Husky Memorial (a site that wasn't on the original route but that I'd always meant to visit), followed by a surreal crossing of Cutteback Dry Lake and a pit for fuel and a snack in Randsburg. Now well behind schedule, I nevertheless decided to press on, heading through Fiddler Gulch toward Garlock. After two more forced detours—one by a lower-than-expected railroad underpass, the other yet another barbed-wire fence—the shadows were getting long as I hit another highlight: a twisty, technical jeep road over the El Paso Mountains.

I concluded it was somehow appropriate that my Llano to Isabella would be ending as it had so many times in the past—prematurely, at Red Rock Canyon—but I was bordering on melancholy at the prospect of a lonely night in the desert. However, as I pulled up to the visitors’ center at Ricardo Campground with the sun setting behind the picturesque cliffs, I had to rub my eyes at the sight of a pair of motorcycle-mounted Santa Clauses. Michael and Adam were honoring a new tradition of their own—an annual holiday California adventure ride in red suits—and they generously shared their campsite, their campfire, and their attention as I regaled them with tales of past adventures with Dad's lost gang.

Llano to Isabella lives on.