Just what the doctor ordered: A couple of KTM 390 Adventures, a couple of friends and a couple of days to get away from it all. Thanks, doc.
By Jesse Ziegler
Photography by Jesse Ziegler and Quinn Cody
I’m trying really hard not to draw comparisons between my favorite mid-summer adventure ride and the seized top-end that was 2020. But I can’t help it. Shortly after this ride, firestorms ripped through the forest. So, it’s kind of hard not to relate the two.
You see, an adventure ride is just what we all needed last year. To get out of the walls and ride sounds amazing, right? It’s solitary enough to be “safe” during a pandemic as you and your buddies eat under the stars and camp. The small towns you visit for essentials like fuel and food appreciate the cashflow and, if you’re respectful and considerate, you can be a careful patron, not an infectious one. Motorcycles are absolutely perfect here. And this ride was as close to perfect as you can get.
Days after unpacking from this adventure 12,000 lightning strikes from a dry thunderstorm system sparked hundreds of fires in California’s grandest forests—many of which we had just ridden through and camped in—igniting fires that would combine to redefine the scale at which wildfire can grow, spread, explode and behave.
In one moment, we were having the times of our lives on simple bikes with a simple plan. Shortly after it was all on fire. Crazy.
The California fire situation late last summer was so out of hand and unpredictable that forest visitors were evacuated from campground areas by military helicopters as they fled truck-flipping and tree up-rooting fire tornadoes. That’s hardly an exaggeration!
Quite factually, the worst fire season on record in California was simply four months of 2020, right after my favorite ride of the year.
So… yeah, I guess it looks like I’m going to compare 2020 to an adventure ride in this story.
It’s more than cliché to continue pushing this escapism agenda of motorcycles being the ultimate cure for symptoms of the past calendar flip (or anything, really). I like to think I’m better than clichés, but I can’t help it.
This ride did help me get through last year. It improved my mood tremendously and still gives me something to look forward to as I plan the next trip. It gave me an escape during the still heat of summer and the slog of social distancing. It allowed me to forget about some worries for a bit. More than that, it just made me laugh my ass off and look back with a guilty grin—the kind of smile only someone getting away with something has.
That’s not therapy, I know. But it’s nice. I’ll take nice right now, won’t you?
More than simply having fun, this ride gave me solid reminders that there are things you can, and should, depend on, even if there’s a firestorm around the bend. And there’s always going to be a firestorm around the bend.
The Good/Bad Idea
If you want some change in your life or the world, you need to move. To move, you need a plan or idea. And the best ideas are good/bad ones.
Like all good/bad ideas should, this one came from a friend. One friend in particular has a record of making good/bad ideas happen. That’s Quinn Cody.
Quinn is king of “figuring things out when we get there.” And when we decided to load up a couple KTM 390 Adventure scooters with minimal camping gear and head north from the Inland Empire freeway confluence, that’s exactly what we did. I asked for a destination or goal or turnaround point from our Temecula, California, starting point.
“Big f’ing trees,” Cody said.
You may know of Mr. Cody from his recent exploits in the newly founded “Hooligan” class at the National Hare & Hound series events, to his Dakar race attempts, Romaniacs on a KTM 1090 Adventure R, etc., and this list can go on for quite a while.
Cody has resources to make good/bad ideas happen. He’s KTM’s North American leading man in charge of research and development tasks for all street bikes. Which, in KTM’s case, means a lot of Adventure models hell-bent for dirt time. From ABS settings to Rally Mode Traction Control and suspension specs, Mr. Cody and his team have put their mark into the final settings on many bikes you and your friends are now riding.
So, Mr. Cody, in all his good/bad idea wisdom, thought we should take two of KTM’s diminutive 390 adventure machines on a national forest rip through the heart of the California’s Sequoia National Forest and southern Sierra Nevada range. It’s not a bad idea at all, but why 390s? We’re pretty tough, full-size dudes. Shouldn’t we take bigger bikes? Especially where we were headed?
The Sierra Nevada is a most impressive mountain range that houses behemoths of American mountains and some of the most iconic landscapes ever photographed. Massive granite domes, gargantuan trees, abundant roads and trails and the American West’s massive scale. I’ll ask it again, why aren’t we taking “full-size” adventure bikes there!?
Cody’s faith in the small bike was convincing. For the KTM 390 Adventure, in particular, his research and development responsibilities centered, bluntly, on trying to break it by hard riding in silly conditions. And as the first North American-sold “Adventure” model to come out of KTM’s India-partner manufacturing facilities, it impressed him in its capabilities and resilience. So, he thought this was a good idea.
I’ve enjoyed testing the KTM 390 Adventure and even comparing it to other entry level-class dual-purpose weapons. But I was surprised to be loading up this small of a bike for this big of country.
The Bike + Route
As I mentioned before, we didn’t really know where we were going, which is a good place to start on a ride. But we had a selection of roads and trails on the map we wanted to explore. The hardest part was starting and slogging up California freeways and highways for three hours before we got to the good stuff, a relatively small price to pay for what was to come.
The beginning and end of adventure rides always seem to end in the same way—going 85 mph on a freeway leaving or coming home in a hurry. You never really want to plan that part of the ride so it’s sort of garbage time. Here, the KTM 390 Adventure does not shine the brightest. The little guy is sure fighting hard, but to get 200 pounds of man and riding gear, plus some camping goods and food, up to highway passing speeds is a pretty solid challenge for the little single-cylinder thumper. It hums along just fine, but if you’re looking for breakneck semi-truck acceleration, look elsewhere!
What the 390 does extremely well is cruise at that 70-80 mph range (depending on road incline and wind direction). Okay, it’s more like 65-75 mph, but it is a capable road-blasting ride here, but that’s about where it’s open-road limits are reached. Those roads are terrible for motorcycling anyway, but they are unavoidable here.
As soon as we turned west off of California’s Highway 395 and gained elevation, the bike kept getting better and better. Smaller roads, scenic stops, its ability to go off the main paved path and tackle an exploratory excursion—these are all things that made it shine. The more I rode it the more I smiled and the more I smiled, the sillier places I imagined it going.
I think we found the limit of the KTM 390 Adventure motorcycle on this trip. From silty and steep Jeep route ridge drops to rocky and rowdy single-track, I wouldn’t want to take it too much deeper down the aggressive off-road path and Mr. Cody mostly agreed, even though he’s also ridden it across the dunes in Glamis during “heat tests” trying to get it to overheat (it didn’t).
Likewise, I wouldn’t want to go in longer, straighter lines than CA395 or I-15, etc. From frozen mornings to sweltering desert sand washes, the bike’s functionality never faltered. I could have picked better bikes for the fringes of the terrain and conditions, but for something down the middle, and this accessible for so many new bike owners, this bike really impressed.
There’s something simple about the 390 that gives you a nice sense of security and confidence. But, it has ample tech and performance to reinforce the investment. With KTM’s 390 Adventure you get an impressive dash, traction control, fantastic quick-shift tech, great suspension for an entry-level machine and a comfortable platform very experienced riders confidently take into the mountains.
Our total ride was over 750 miles fully loaded. The 390’s averaged close to 60 mpg with 180 and 220-pound riders aboard. And they weren’t babied, that’s impressive for such “entry-level” bikes.
I modified very little on my test bike for this ride. I slapped on Giant Loop and Wolfman luggage to hold the camping gear, food and camera equipment. Then, I installed a set of Dunlop Trailmax Mission ADV tires. That’s it. Cargo, straps and tires—simple.
The Dunlop Trailmax Mission is a 60/40-ish Street/off-road tire with some serious mileage built in. We have tested them extensively and for most adventures, they are great. They’re not the most aggressive tires, sure. But they work surprisingly well in the loose stuff and on mixed off-road terrain. Plus, they last forever. They are a great fit for the KTM 390 with their only negative being they’re heavy.
I’ve ridden a lot with Mr. Cody. But I’ve never ridden with him and been connected by a communication system. Whoa. Game changer! If you want to talk smack with your buddies while riding, I highly recommend getting set up with Bluetooth comms. We had one Sena set and one Cardo set and figured out how to get them to talk to each other. Thank goodness. It will speed up your ride, improve communication tremendously and give you ample opportunities to laugh.
A lot of people in 2020 had Zoom parties—friends getting together for video conferencing to have a beer or just socialize. Well, Mr. Cody and I had a few days of virtual racing, teasing, life-coaching and plan-scheming on tiny adventure bikes complete with unsure decision making and storytelling.
The simple fact of exploring new roads and trails while being able to socialize and laugh with friends combined with forgetting about the world for a few days… maybe that is therapy.
As mentioned before, our ride took us through 500-plus miles of mountain terrain and a few hundred miles of highway/freeway. Kennedy Meadows, Johnsondale, Sherman Pass, Ponderosa, California Hot Springs, Pine Flat, Portuguese Pass and other communities/landmarks watched us ride by, fed us and kept us entertained. It also ripped us down highway 190 towards the town of Springville from Camp Nelson. And that, my friends, is a strip of pavement you should aim for on any bike you can find.
Burn, Baby Burn
Throughout our ride, we constantly discussed how ripe for fire our surroundings were. These observations were not unlike the impending doom 2020 presented as it surrounded and smothered so many.
The hits of the last year just kept coming. And as we stared at giant sequoia trees outside tourist traps and walked through knee-deep pine needles working around fallen timber on trails, it became increasingly ominous to us that it wouldn’t take much to have this whole forest raging in a blaze.
The forest is parched in August. Conditions are perfect in the American West for catastrophe. While cool nights are a relief from summer heat, the elevation doesn’t bring moisture in the summer and we could feel our surroundings almost wanting to burn. When you’re there, on a small bike, as a relatively small human compared to the immense scale of the landscape and world around you, it can be sort of scary to imagine it all going up in flames.
Did that stop us from exploring, laughing and doing borderline irresponsible things on tiny adventure bikes? No. We were careful not to start fires, but we could see them wanting to burn all around.
Back at home, our own local air swollen with smoke, the reality of the world came back in a hurry. People and places we just visited were displaced from their homes at the very least. Certainly, some lost it all. Lives were lost in fire-related accidents across the state and never have more acres of land burned to the ground in a season. That’s catastrophic to me because I saw, from the seat of my little 390, how awesome the backcountry was before it burned. At the same time, we saw the impending doom of high fuel loads everywhere.
But the forests aren’t done burning just because it’s 2021. In fact, most experts continue to predict wildfires will continue to get even worse in the coming years. Unnaturally worse. Do you think pandemic-fueled social issues will just start getting better with the introduction of a vaccine and new months? There is a lot of damage done. And it’s going to take time to heal. And healing is where we need to go.
There are two sides to this. On one, it’s hard to thrive or survive in fear. And we’ve all been scared to some extent lately. It’s hard to stay home and imagine the world burning around you. It’s hard to be isolated from family, friends and co-workers while you watch normalcy turn to ash.
On the other side, we all need and deserve to laugh, be inspired and enjoy our surroundings. It’s healing and essential for real health. For me, motorcycles and friends with good/bad ideas provide this by the bucket load. Maybe it’s hiking for your friends or riding in a boat, whatever it is, now is the time to make planning the next excursion a priority. It’s easy to sit and wait, but before you go letting the fear of current events paralyze you from getting out there in the future, go see the trees before they burn. It’s worth it.CN