Riding to the Edge of Oahu

Story by D.G. Hilton// Photos by D.G. Hilton
November 18 2015

You always come back to where you started, only to start out again

It’s not so much the realization of a dream as it is the illusion of escape. Either way, my heart is beating in a way it hasn’t for quite a while as I gaze across the cerulean waters of Honolulu Harbor, a stone’s throw from my throttle hand. For a moment I almost forget I’m lost. For another moment, I almost don’t care. This is the second time in 20 minutes I’ve ended up pulled over on the side of the road by the Honolulu Hilton (no relation). But if this is what it feels like to be lost on Oahu, I’ll take it. With only a week in Honolulu, I had to act fast: either rent a motorcycle and sneak in a little adventure for a few hours, or spend the entire trip in shopping malls, on restaurant patios or on crowded beaches with the ladies of my household.

So with my wife’s blessing and infinite understanding, and only a few sighs from my three daughters, I had set off to rent something with two wheels and an engine. A short stroll from our hotel, I found Big Kahuna Motorcycle Rental, where everything from heavy American iron to lightweight Italian scooters is available – or so I thought.
“Today is busy, every day busy if not rain,” the young Japanese woman at the rental counter explained. “Not many bike left.”


Riding_OahuThrough an open door I saw an older BMW GS650 parked in the alley behind the shop. With a rust-red chain and cracked plastic, it looked like it had seen better days, but was infinitely more appealing than any scooter. So, after signing a rental agreement and handing over my credit card (US$125 or 24 hours), I declined her offer of a free tourist map and set off with a boast: “I’ll be fine. How hard can it be to get lost on an island?”

Twenty minutes later I’m staring out over the harbour, sitting on the BMW’s hot seat and trying to see the map on my phone so I can find my way out of the maze of Honolulu’s one-way streets. But it’s pointless: in the bright Hawaiian sunshine, my phone might as well be a brick.
After watching a few city buses and tourist coaches lumber past, I decide to follow one in the hope that it will lead me out of the city. I slide the key into the BMW’s ignition, flick the starter and suppress a surge of excitement as the big single burbles to life. With the bike idling beneath me, I look out at the blue water one more time. Lost or not, renting a motorcycle on Oahu was a very good decision.

On Duke’s Lagoon Drive, I ride slowly and stay close to the bus as it trundles along the smooth, hot asphalt through Honolulu’s glitzy shopping district. When I look up, I see Diamond Head looming like a frozen shadow in the gaps between office towers and towering hotels. It’s mesmerizing, and I have to remind myself to focus on the unfamiliar road and the unexpectedly heavy stop-and-go traffic. When I next glance in the BMW’s mirrors, Honolulu has receded into subtropical greens and Pacific Ocean blues, and glimpses of concrete and glass.

On the Clock

Diamond rockWith a 24-hour rental agreement and a full tank of petrol, I decide to see how far into or around Oahu I can get. Diamond Head Road takes me into the famous Punch Bowl, a hollowed out volcanic crater home to a U.S. military installation. It’s a stunning destination, but I’m not here to hike, so I stay only long enough to snap a few pictures. The heat also keeps me moving and on the hunt for a cool breeze.

After a short ride through an oceanfront residential neighbourhood that immediately has me fantasizing about selling my house back home and moving here, I merge onto the Kalanianaole Highway and speed up. For a few minutes, the fast-moving traffic reminds me of Hwy 1 back home in British Columbia. But when a gust of Kona wind buffets the bike unexpectedly, I’m reminded that it’s been a while since I rode my big single to Baja, so I keep to the slow lane and force myself to ignore the coastline rushing past.
The continental rush doesn’t last long, and soon the highway becomes a serpentine seaside route, winding through subtropical hills high above the waves of the Pacific. My throttle hand is twitching, but the slow-moving tourist traffic of minivans, microbuses and scooters has me keeping two fingers on the front-brake lever. This turns out to be a wise decision.
When I ride past Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, Oahu’s volcanic hills, draped in subtropical greenery, hint at a prehistoric past that seems a lot closer than it is. I try to focus on the road ahead but it’s not easy. At these slow speeds, I feel myself drifting into dangerous territory: two-wheeled complacency. The ride is so good, the roads so smooth, the scenery so spectacular, what could possibly go wrong?

Seconds later, I find out. When I glance away from the road for barely an instant, unable to keep my eyes from the tropical blue water lapping white-sand beaches, one of those minivans suddenly stops on the road right in front of me. With no time to think, I squeeze the front brake and stomp on the rear. The back tire skids, the front chirps, the rusty chain slaps the swingarm and the entire bike shudders. No ABS on this old girl.

On the Edge

food truckHaving crashed every bike I’ve ever owned and most more than once, instinct immediately kicks in and I manage to counter-steer toward the gravel shoulder to my right and avoid rear-ending the van. In most circumstances, this would be fine. I might fall over in the gravel and roll ass over teakettle a couple of times before coming to an undignified stop. But this shoulder ends at a steep volcanic cliff, and far too soon. And in no scenario do I want to find out how it feels to roll over it.

Fortunately, there is just enough space for me to squeeze in between the minivan and the clifftop, and I manage to bring the bike to a controlled stop right beside the van. I turn my head and see a family of five oblivious to my presence. They are craning their necks to look out the van’s front window. I pull forward and see the object of their fascination: one of Oahu’s many feral roosters, scratching the dirt and gravel at the side of the road. I pull in front of the van, startle the rooster and continue on my way, angry only with myself. Never look away.

This truism for motorcyclists becomes easier to keep in mind when the traffic thins and the road becomes even more twisty. At speed, and deep into sharp turns, leaning and grinning like some introspective monk back from the brink, the road is all I think, feel and see. A voice deep inside my head keeps repeating, This is riding at its best. But then it always says that, wherever I am, whatever I ride. And it’s always true.

A few more corners and the rocky Oahu coastline melts away and I’m riding through another world; rural Hawaii, rural Oahu, island life, island style – the tourists have vanished, the modernity is gone. Instead, I find rustic charm and tropical allure in the form of tall palm trees; small houses tucked into dark green hillsides; old, rusty pickup trucks driven slowly by men in straw hats who wave to passersby; and uniformed schoolchildren running and laughing as they play Hawaiian games during recess.

Ocean View

The coastline is never far, and returns just as I start pining for it. And how it returns! To my right, the view is dominated by blue water, white surf, creamy sand and palm trees. It’s an entire planet of paradise. When it becomes too much to resist, I pull into a small seaside park, hang my helmet on the bike’s mirror and stroll down to a beach that stretches at least 5 km in both directions.

A glance at my watch shows I’m less than an hour and a half from Honolulu and its four hundred and some-odd thousand souls, and yet I count on one hand the people on the beach. When the sun gets to be too much and my bottle of water runs low, I get back on the BMW and keep riding. A few minutes later, I have to stop again, this time not for a beach but a roadside barbecue chicken stand. I park and stand in line behind a Hawaiian couple and their two small children, both of whom eye me and the bike a little suspiciously.

After tucking into my meal and doing my best to wipe sticky barbecue sauce off my fingers and whiskers with a white paper napkin, I do a quick calculation and realize that, based on my pace and the fact that I underestimated the size of Oahu (as I was told I would), I won’t make it around the circumference of the island until long past dark. So, instead of meandering along the stunning coast any longer, I cut inland and hightail it to the North Shore. At least if I get that far, I can claim to have ridden most of the island this time around, and still leave plenty for next time.

This, however, means another bout of not-so-easy freeway riding, but the BMW has no problem keeping pace. Helmets aren’t mandatory in Hawaii, but with the humid air howling past my head at 60 miles an hour, I’m glad I decided to wear the one that came with the bike. How Big Is Small? After about 30 minutes, I pull off the highway onto a serene country road. As I ride past fragrant pineapple and garlic plantations, I start to realize just how big a small island can be. I know it’s an illusion, but the horizon seems to go on forever, as if the islands of Hawaii somehow transcend time and stretch space. Pondering this impossibility, I arrive in Haleiwa, a village on the North Shore.

On both sides of the narrow road, tourist traps and surf shops vie for the attention of passing motorists, and the smell of garlic shrimp, Cajun shrimp, butter shrimp and barbecue shrimp assail my nostrils. With shrimp trucks to the left of me and shrimp shacks to the right, I park the bike once again, set out on foot and end up finishing three platters of shrimp I didn’t need but couldn’t resist. I’ve only been on the road a few hours, but already I’m starting to feel “the pull.” My wife and daughters are having fun in Honolulu, but I feel as though I’m having more fun, seeing and eating things they should see and eat, too. So after walking off the shrimp platters and barbecue chicken with a long stroll on the beach to watch surfers as young as eight bravely throw themselves onto their boards and paddle out into the deepest blue seas alone, I feel the endless time and space shrinking. It’s time to head back to my world. Back Again And back, I realize, is where I always want to be.

I think about this paradox as I ride south toward Honolulu along Oahu’s west coast: the desire to get back, to come back, to keep coming back, to be back. This is my pattern – the full circle of every ride and throughout my entire life. Back here, back there, back again. When I arrive in Honolulu, the rays of the setting sun have grown dark orange as they kiss the highest point on Diamond Head. I drop off the BMW and helmet at Big Kahuna’s and walk back to our hotel, where my wife and daughters are waiting. I hope they’ve had a good day, but it’s always a gamble when I open the door. Tears, pouting faces, the silent treatment. I never know what’s in store. This time, it’s smiles all around. Everyone is wearing novelty grass skirts. “We went shopping, Papa,” my oldest daughter says, grinning and waving her arms in imitation of a hula dancer. I’m glad to be back. I always am, no matter what. But I also can’t wait to get back to the open road and the endless horizon. That’s the thing about riding. The road never really ends, and eventually you always come back to where you started, to start out again. And after this ride, I know I’ll be back to ride to the edge of Oahu again.


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