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The Badlands: Keep Your Eyes on the Road and Watch out for Falling Motorcycles

THE BADLANDS                                                                                              — photo by George Cunningham

There is a place between where we live and where we go to visit friends and shop, called the Badlands.

The Badlands is what folks around here refer to as the curvy-twisty part of the 60 freeway between the San Gorgonio mountain pass where our home is located and the city of Moreno Valley, Riverside, and the rest of the Los Angeles basin. It is a challenging piece of roadway – especially when you drive it for the first time – but it is also very beautiful.

Unfortunately, it’s sometimes hard for the driver to appreciate the beauty. The passenger can look around and see a vertical landscape of hilltops and canyons, but the driver needs to keep his eyes on the road. The speed limit through the Badlands is 65, but this being California, drivers tend to push that to 75 and even 80. Although the freeway has two lanes in each direction, loaded trucks have to gear down and creep up the grade in the right-hand lane at only 35 or 40 mph.

What this means is when you get a timid driver, poking along at the speed limit in the fast lane, impatient motorists have to use the truck lane as a passing lane – getting up enough speed to get around the slow-poke without running into the rear of a truck in low-gear. There are no exit roads through the Badlands, so when there is a big accident, traffic is stuck there for long time.

When we first moved to Banning and people referred to the Badlands, we thought it was just a local nickname for that 10- or 12-mile stretch of twists and turns. But we were wrong.

The Badlands covers a good-sized area of Riverside County – south and east of Redlands to north and west of Hemet and San Jacinto. The actual geographic name for the Badlands is the “Timoteo Badlands” and it has a colorful history. Back before California became part of the United States, Indian vigilantes, as a service to landowners, would chase down bandits in the Badlands and kill them. Later, after California became a state, American settlers became upset about Indians killing white people – even if the white people were bandits and robbers. The Indians ended up fleeing to the San Jacinto mountains, just west of what is now Palm Springs.

A few decades later – from 1864 to 1868 – the teen-aged Wyatt Earp lived with his family in San Timoteo Canyon up against the Badlands. This was years before Mr. Earp took part in the famous 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Ariz.

So the Badlands is not just scenic, it is also historic, which makes it an even more interesting place.

But all of this is just prologue to my story. A few weeks back, a dirt bike rider, Kyle Katsandris, jumped across the Badlands stretch of freeway, then posted his stunt on YouTube. I have to admit that it was both pretty spectacular and incredibly stupid. It is obvious from the video that drivers on the freeway at the time of his jump probably didn’t even notice it. But he put them all in danger.

No matter how skilled a dirt-bike rider is, things can always go wrong.  Engines can stall, tires can go flat, carefully laid plans can be in error. Think of Evel Knievel jumping the fountains at Caesar’s Palace on New Year’s Eve in 1967. At least Evel hurt only himself.

Several hundred pounds of steel and human flesh suddenly falling out of the sky into the traffic lanes of the Badlands would be catastrophic.

So now, as I drive the 60 Freeway, looking out for traffic, making all the twists and turns, trying to enjoy the scenery, I also find myself watching the sky, on the lookout for flying motorcycles. Mr. Katsandris is obviously a skilled and daring motorcyclist, but now that he has opened the door, you know that other less skilled, yet equally daring young men will attempt to duplicate his feat.

So I find myself keeping an eye to the heavens as I navigate this challenging bit of freeway. And frankly, it makes me angry for two reasons.

First, I shouldn’t have to worry about motorcycles falling from the sky as I drive back from the mall.

And second, and most maddening, is that I know in my heart that part of the reason I keep looking up, is that if somebody does try to do it again, I sure-as-hell don’t want to miss it.

– George Lee Cunningham

POST SCRIPT: Although Mr. Katsandris made it over the freeway unhurt, he was critically injured on Sunday, April 2, when he attempted to jump over railroad tracks running through the hills in Simi Valley. The 24-year-old San Clemente biker had to jump 140 to 160 feet from one hill to another to clear the track. He was apparently injured after he overshot his landing zone.

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