By Kenneth Olausson
Twisting the night away dancing salsa or samba was never my kind of thing. No, I'd rather be doing it dirty in the dunes - preferably on a Husky-engined bike. Come with me back to 1967 and follow me through the desert - just 18-years-old and newly-graduated, I came Stateside to dance around in the Mojave. Surfers and blondes, step aside!
Early May, after graduating from high school, it was party time. I was out for an adventure and planned to start the following morning – a trip to the US Indy 500. But first, I had a few drinks and ended up in Hotel Foresta, outside Stockholm city. As it turned out, the Beach Boys were on tour in my home-town and we hit the very same bar in the wee hours of the night. Talking to Brian and Dennis Wilson, the subject soon got onto cars - a favourite topic. I proudly told them that I would drive a Shelby-Mustang press car for three weeks in California, but they were unimpressed: "It's a slow car”, they said unanimously, “we prefer the Shelby sports car, which is a lot faster". True, but then I did drive the supercharged version, which produced an awesome 450 horsepower, more than enough power for a poor graduate. After Dennis signed my college cap, we parted ways and they wished me good luck on my Surfin' Safari.
I had been invited to Los Angeles after helping a lost American media man in Sweden, the previous year. "Why don't you come visit me in Pasadena?” he’d asked. “Be my guest and stay as long as you want". Such a nice proposal couldn’t be rejected and Lynn Wineland was the kind journalist who would take care of me.
Being a true Californian, he had broad shoulders and pale-blue eyes, having spent his youth surfing - just the way the yanks do as a lifestyle here. He also had access to one of the first Husqvarna motocross machines that were imported to the United States. "Why don't we enter you in a race?" he asked matter-of-factly. Being open to new things, I agreed without hesitation. "I'll take you to the Mojave for the weekend." Lynn promised.
Like many epic trails, the Mojave Desert was an old Indian trade-route. The Indians lived here along the Colorado River, following tracks that guaranteed water. Then the Americans moved west. Kit Carson came this way to reach the Mexican Pueblos. Gold was found, and people went crazy.
Gold or not, the Mojave was an early route that brought pioneers to California. The soil is unique and much of the countryside is the same now as it was once found. The Mojave consists of sand mixed with gravel basins, potholes and salt flats. It is a vast, arid region in south eastern California and you'll see cat claws grow along the arroyos. Trees are few, the exception being the Joshua, which is a yucca.
We left early Sunday morning, it was pitch black outside. Stopping for breakfast - American style - scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, toast and hot coffee. Yummy, not like yoghurt and cereal back home! Getting close to nature, we watched the sun come up over the horizon. Unforgettable. To me, this was the Wild West, which is America to Europeans. The desert lives with its fate and has its own rules. Water means everything, or better still, the lack of it. In fact, an oasis is all that is on your mind despite all the bike fun. For it will get hot out there, and it gets dusty and your throat is going to be clogged, nearly as bad as your carburettor.
I didn’t realise at first but I had been entered into a cross-country event - a free-for-all invitation. Before I knew what was happening, I was straddling a brand new 250cc Husky, about to compete with a few hundred race fans in the desert. Among them, the rising star J. N. Roberts who was also Husqvarna-mounted. We were the only two guys riding the Swedish brand this Sunday.
The Mojave Preserve is huge, empty and with little service available. "Take plenty of emergency rations, extra water and fill up your gas tank". I did the opposite, thinking back to the same advice mentioned in Australia when I was riding a bike towards the Kakadu National Park; “Bring water and petrol into the outback” – I did the opposite. When young, you’re indestructible.
Feeling lost among these riders ready to race, I missed the start, realizing too late it was time to go. Being late, I flew away eating dust and sand from the back of the field while J. N. was up front. I bounced around battling for control while adrenalin pumped through my veins.
Small, bumpy hills are a blast to cover and I went as fast as I dared over rocks where vision was poor. Driving full throttle over blind obstacles may not be my favourite game, but here I had a short time to enjoy the world's most enjoyable toy, so I gambled. The engine revved out when airborne, the power peaked in a crescendo and the rear weight caused the front-end to rise into the air. I wouldn't want to do a somersault here - better keep out of trouble, they weren’t my wheels after all.
A small breeze of hot and dry air flowed through my helmet and felt like a river of wind. I saw a long left-hander coming up and dropped down to 3rd gear. The Husky went wide and I tried holding the broadside throughout the curve. It is said that this trail still brings out the best and worst in people, being such a dangerous stretch. Picnickers should stay at home, as travelling here is unforgiving. Be it a sandstorm or a whirlwind, the climate is going to set you back a few pounds when you’re sweating.
The race in the sand was over in a little over half-an-hour. I had been chasing jack rabbits more than racing, but I competed, did some wheelies and crossed the finish, proud to have made it. Some guides predict you can die out here, maybe that’s what made my trip so challenging. What an adventure for an 18-year-old teenager!
I've been to Bonneville, rode a bike around Australia and driven to 14 countries within 24 hours - a Guinness Record. But riding the Husqvarna in Mojave tickled my fancy, because the machine was fast and furious. The experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. Oh, the race results? J.N. Roberts crossed the line before anyone else. Myself, I came last. Hurt, but not injured. So, a Husqvarna at both ends of the results sheet - 50 years ago!