Everyone also appreciates the Kawasaki's abilities in the twisties, but it's big and sharp and harder to gather up than the BMW, plus it demands some tiptoeing until you get used to all that K-STUFF. The Gold Wing is magically agile for its heft, and can be ridden very aggressively, just as long as you're aware of its cornering limitations, which can go from floorboards to OMG in an instant. The Harley? You know, it does pretty well keeping up in the tight stufflots of torque, and even better ground clearance than the Honda. Get into the bumpy stuff, however, and you'll be Googling chiropractors in the next town. Two inches of travel is never a good thing, at least not this far from the white-hot spotlight.
Of course what goes fast, must slow down. All of the machines, despite their huge differences, sport ABS, which came in handy during the moments when our ride turned safari, as it seemed to, often. For example, just after dusk on the first day, we came upon two bobcat kittens playing in the middle of a single lane road. I was just going to run them over, until I figured out they weren't housecats. Then there was the wild boar Russell nearly took out with the Gold Wing while we were buzzing across Skaggs Spring Road from the coast. There were no complaints about any of the braking systems, though Kawasaki's "Co-Active" setup, where the rider gets to choose between two modes of linked braking, was not the favorite. We preferred "standard" mode, where less linking effect is felt on initial lever actuation over the "high-combined," mode intended for straight-line and two-up riding. The H-D and Honda also used linked braking, though it was less of a brain-bender than the Kawasaki's system. We really appreciated that the GS does not use linked brakes, and a push of a button allows you to disengage its ABS.
Downieville, California, on Highway 49, is the high point of our trip, both literally and figuratively. This little gold rush town tucked in the crags of the Sierra Nevada is touring candy. All roads leading in or out of the area are sublime, and for the most part, empty. We roll into Downieville just before dusk, reeling from a mix of sensory overload and spent adrenaline, and happen into a little motel called the Carriage House Inn, with rooms so close to the Yuba River you can skip rocks right from your balcony. We all agree, this is motorcycle touring: spending a long, fantastic day blasting through one postcard-perfect scene after another to end up at the doorstep of a cheap, clean, charming motel in the middle of nowhere. That night, on a deck strewn with party lights, we sucked down cerveza and tacos like animals, probably spitting little bits of salsa as we rushed our words, reliving our day.
The days roll by so quickly when you're doing what you want to do. And then you wake up on the last day of your trip and all the hooks back home: the job, the bills, the family, are pulling you down the highway toward reality. The last day of a tour is rarely the best, and such was the case for us.
There was bad food, straight roads, sweltering heat...even flaring tempers. The Honda's transmission was starting to jump gears, and the knobbies on the BMW had become nibbles. Here's where a bike has to have just the right balance of amenities, performance and comfort to keep you in your happy place. I mean, any bike can be fun in ideal circumstances, but the best touring bike will shine in celestial environs, as well as hellish ones.
Not surprisingly, we all agree that the BMW, overall, is the best traveling bike. It's neutral in every category of performance, from engine response to handling to seating position, which translates into a bike that doesn't get in your way, no matter what you throw its way. It's a great choice of motorcycle for any rider, especially those of us who ache to turn off on every other dirt road...and don't care so much about listening to Lady GaGa while riding. But you'll need some money.