Monday, May 29, 2017

Choppers, Frank Lloyd Wright and Snapshots from a Small Town

It was a little after lunchtime when the fog started rolling in, turning the gray sky grayer and the cool day colder. This can be expected in San Francisco, but today I felt the urge to do something about it—by hitting the road.

I recently got my 1970 Harley-Davidson XLCH back up and running, and I figured there would be no better way to spend my pre-Memorial Day Sunday than riding it north and seeing what I could find. There wasn’t really much of a plan—just to check out the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center and hopefully one thing would lead to another. With a backpack loaded with tools and a tank full of gas, I pointed the Avon Speedmaster towards San Rafael and opened up the throttle.

Other than a short camping trip a couple weeks ago, the Ironhead has had very little freeway mileage. But that was all forgotten as I climbed through the gears, moving between cars with plenty of passing power. The big Mikuni carb sucked the fresh ocean air as I crossed the Golden Gate, pipes snarling as I rolled past clumps of tourists that lined the eastern edge of the bridge. I wished the Golden Gate a happy birthday (it turned 80 this weekend) and told it that it was lookin’ good.

Less than a mile later, I felt the air get warmer. I could see golden hills in the distance and I sensed that I really was headed in the right direction. Before I knew it, my exit was up and I rumbled down the off ramp towards the Marin County Civic Center.

The Civic Center and the Hall of Justice were the only government buildings designed by Wright that were ever built. Construction on the former ended in 1962, while the latter was completed the same year that my Harley came off the line in Milwaukee. Although I had visited this mid-century marvel once before with my parents, I was once again take aback by the level of detail that Wright incorporated into every building on the property. His initial vision was to create structures that would “melt into the sunburnt hills.” Fifty-five years later, I’d say he succeeded; his designs have undoubtedly stood the test of time.

From the Civic Center, I rode through the winding roads of China Camp State Park. I passed the expansive salt marsh and even saw a handful of deer darting between the trees. Then I moved west. Past cars and trucks and big houses and small houses and businesses with plants growing on the roof. Storefronts and strip malls, cafes and patios. Going nowhere in particular and enjoying every minute of it. After about a dozen miles, I spotted what looked like a marquee off in the distance. “FAIRFAX” boasted the neon sign in a deco-style typeface. Not only was it informing me that I had come across the Fairfax Theatre—a movie house that was built in 1950—it also let me know that I was entering a the heart of a town of the same name.

I parked my bike just off the main drag and spent the remainder of the afternoon strolling around Fairfax, enjoying the weather as well as all of the mid-century buildings and signage in the downtown area. I sat down on a bench dedicated to the region’s mountain biking pioneers and watched the scenes unfold around me. Two children struggle to ride a yellow tandem bicycle down a busy sidewalk in front of a place called “Hairfax.” A mother and her teenage son realize the have to go pick up their laundry and quickly change direction. A man with his arm in a sling waits for someone to show up (eventually she does). Pre-teens rip by on scooters while an older kid lags behind on a BMX bike that’s clearly too small. The sun sinks lower in the sky. A digital signboard at a bank indicates that the temperature is now just below 70. It feels like summer is right around the corner—and I smile.—Joey Ukrop

Side Note: Both the bike and I made it home without any problems—almost. On my camping trip, I had a problem with the oil tank rattling loose on the freeway. That problem was fixed with some high-quality hardware. This time around, I pulled into my driveway and went to put the bike in the garage, only to realize the oil tank cap had disappeared somewhere between San Rafael and San Francisco! Don't worry—a new one is on its way.