On the first day of the trip, I rode from the Bay Area to Sacramento, CA, and it was unequivocally one of the worst, most horrific days of my life. It began soft and wondrous, setting out into the unknown adventure in the misty dawn, a scattering of stars still visible. The day grew light and warm as I rode past the cities and the suburbs to where the land opened up and the scent of sage was heavy in the air.
To get to the Central Valley and Sacramento, I had to cross the Diablo Range, a small range - certainly not mountains in the Western sense. I was too busy worrying about having to cross the Sierras the following day to give any fear to my morning's ride across the Diablos. I-580 is the main route of travel between the Bay Area and the Central Valley, but since I wanted to stay off the interstate, I chose what appeared to be a rather obscure secondary highway.
I approached this little highway via a lovely wooded road with no traffic, calm scenery and lots of birds. I was feeling so good, so in control, so right on the road. Things changed in an instant. The moment I turned onto the highway I was swept into chaos, into conditions of insanity - at least for me, on day one, on my tiny Vespa.
The highway itself was a two-laner, one lane for each direction and no divider in between. It wound up steeply in great sweeping curves, following the landscape of the dry hills, and it was packed with cars, trucks, and semis rushing in both directions.
Hypnotic golden hills of windmills rolled like waves in every direction, growing and dropping, overlapping to the blue-sky horizon. The huge spires of the windmills grew out of the ridges of the hills like rows of giant white flowers, their petals giant blades, spinning, mesmerizing.
I pushed the Vespa to 70 mph in an attempt to keep with the flow of traffic - at that speed, I felt like I was going to take flight, and still I was not going fast enough for the drivers behind me. There were no turn-offs, no shoulder at all; there was nowhere to go but straight ahead and straight ahead was a curve. A semi grill loomed enormous in my rearview mirrors, racing down the declines just feet behind me. One wrong move or jerky turn or hesitant reaction and I knew I would be laid out in a crash, the semi on top of me in a semi-second.
I nearly threw up inside my helmet twice from fear and desperate helplessness, and I could feel the moment when pure animal survival-instinct stepped in to overcome my rising panic and simply keep me upright. When we reached the Valley, the highway leveled out and I spotted a fruit stand. I pulled over, parked, and stood beside the highway, shaking.