Getting Lost On An Indian Bagger In The SoCal Desert

Cherney rolls the dice and lets the 2018 Indian Chieftain’s Ride Command system dictate the journey

Pioneertown
If you're anywhere near Joshua Tree, you might as well make the short detour to funky Pioneertown.Jeff Allen

It was hot. Wicked hot. As in 105-forecasted-to-hit-110-degrees hot. And I was on a motorcycle in the middle of a summer day in the middle of the desert near Joshua Tree, trying to get lost. So I did what any rider with a 7-inch touchscreen at his disposal would do. I stopped for lunch.

I'd called up the Points of Interest and Restaurants tabs within the Indian Chieftain's Ride Command navigation system looking to get some relief, and Pioneertown popped up as a nearby option. Built in the 1940s and bankrolled by the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, the faux Western town was originally meant to be used just as a movie set (The Cisco Kid and Judge Roy Bean are two of many films shot there), but the now-real burg never lost the trappings of an old frontier settlement. Even today, on unpaved “Mane” Street, you'll see a restaurant, a post office, general store, and other buildings, unchanged for decades. It feels like a town ditched by ghosts and then reclaimed by humans.

As luck would have it, Ride Command also spat out Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace as the suggested lunch stop. The 40-year-old former cantina is a touchstone frequented by locals and tourists alike. Tucking into the charred end of one of Pappy's famed tri-tip sandwiches, I considered my options: Continue north toward more desert adventure and record-breaking heat, or let discretion guide me back to LA's cooler breezes. Out in the Mojave, the forecast wasn't looking good. So I gulped down my lemonade, smeared on sunblock and headed out to the bike.

The bike in question was the 2018 Indian Chieftain Limited, Indian’s subtle concession to the cleaner lines of the latter 2000s, a bike that skips the flair of the flagship Chief and the outright mass of the Roadmaster and Elite dressers. This was Indian’s modern, not-so-retro bagger, and its answer to the Harley Street Glide.bw

Cheiftain Limited
The Chieftain Limited eschew the bulk of Indian’s other full-dress touring models for a more modern look.Jeff Allen

The Limited made it into the Indian lineup last year as a higher-end option to the base-model Chieftain ($23,999). As such, this sleeker Chieftain ($24,499) gets a fresher look too, with a less bulky front fender replacing the “iconic” valanced unit. That new fender is sawed off to reveal more of the slick 19-inch, 10-spoke contrast-cut cast alloy wheel (replacing the original’s 16-incher), and even the dual 300mm floating brake rotors and four-pot calipers below. The headlight bezel is color-matched, and a two-piece leather saddle with contrast stitching wraps up the muted look. Even the chrome nameplate on the front fairing is gone.

Limited handling
The Limited handles twisties and sweepers alike, with a relatively easy turn-in and a planted feel.Jeff Allen

We had started the trip several days before, the Indian and I, just north of San Diego near Palomar Mountain, where we'd met photographer Jeff Allen to shoot some details. The bike was a solid match for the road as it embraced the twists of the Pines to Palms Highway, loping along on the same chassis and Thunder Stroke 111 V-twin powertrain as the Roadmaster models. I took full advantage of its right-now ride-by-wire response and acres of torque coming on as seamlessly as when we ran it on our dyno last year.

Because it's a premium model, the Chieftain Limited brings the latest Indian tech, with the aforementioned Ride Command info/audio/navigation system,100-watt audio, ABS, keyless ignition (with a fob that also locks and unlocks the side bags), a power adjustable windshield, tire pressure monitoring system, and Bluetooth. Also key for touring duty are the handlebar-mounted fairing and floorboards, all arranged in a sleeker way than the Limited's fully dressed cousins. Having muscled the bike through dozens of miles of mountain roads that day, I was pretty pleased with the choice so far.

Ride Command
What are you looking for? Indian’s Ride Command will find it, even with gloves on.Jeff Allen

But really, we'd chosen the Chieftain Limited for the Ride Command system, which Don Canet called "superb" in his assessment last year. The thing was supposedly so intuitive it could tell when you needed a potty break.

The original plan was to preselect a couple of waypoints, roll the dice, and have Ride Command randomly tell us where to go. Only the RC isn’t quite that intuitive, we were told by Indian’s PR folk—you have to actually enter a destination. On to plan B then.

We'd use the Random Point Generator, an online tool that lets you throw virtual darts on a map, and stitch together a somewhat arbitrary route. Once the points are selected you plug them into your GPS—in this case, the Ride Command system. You can amp up the fun by including nearby attractions, which I did by plugging in Joshua Tree National Park. The new plan was to essentially get lost in the points in between.

Navigation problems
It’s not infallible though; there were several times the navigation led us to an impassable route. Probably should’ve updated the maps…Jeff Allen

Photography wrapped up late on day one but it was still hot, so I asked Ride Command for accommodation suggestions around the (hopefully) cooler town of Idyllwild, perched in the nearby mountains at 5,500 feet. So much for the Random Point Generator. Curling around the twists of the San Jacinto Mountain range, the Limited proved surprisingly capable at negotiating the bends; she's a big girl, after all. The bike keeps the same rake and trail dimensions as the other Chieftains despite the bigger front wheel, which made for easy, neutral steering and excellent stability. Other than the river of sweat coming off my brow, I had no complaints about overall comfort either, with the Limited’s easy ergonomics taking me up the mountain in style. The cush, well-padded saddle had me feeling like a king—or at least, a chieftain.

That illusion came crashing down at Idyllwild when I discovered there were no rooms available. So with the sun well below the horizon, I pointed the Limited’s 19-inch wheel down the shadowy curves of Highway 243, toward the more densely populated Coachella Valley. Not exactly ideal to be heading down a dark, twisty mountain road at 9 p.m. on an 850-pound bagger that tends to resist 15-mph, first-gear hairpins, but, oh well, only 45 more miles to civilization. I could feel the cool alpine air being sucked away as I descended into the baking desert heat.

Limited amenities
The Limited brings a full complement of touring amenities, like ABS and bright LED headlights, should you find yourself riding in the trees after dusk, like I did.Jeff Allen

By about 5 miles into Highway 243, I’d adjusted to the rhythm of the road; the Limited gives you plenty of clearance for normal riding, and I only dragged the floorboards twice on a particularly tight S-turn. Then a fuzzy shape materialized on the blacktop some 20 feet away, and I ham-fisted the levers, praying for the ABS to kick in. Braking is usually underwhelming on a bike this big, but the Indian’s big binders responded and the bike skittered to a stop a foot shy of a skinny, nervous fawn.

Breathing heavily, I soon hit the lights of the valley and left the trees behind. By the time Ride Command conjured up a hotel in Banning it was nearly an hour later, and the onboard ambient temp gauge read 102. Did I mention it was 10 p.m.?

After an early morning wake-up call (the front desk clerk told me, “You better get your ass on the road by 7 a.m. or you’ll melt”) I hustled to mount up to log another 180 miles around Joshua Tree National Park before noon.

Ride Command system
The Ride Command system packs a ton of info onto that 7-inch screen. Fortunately, you can customize the display to your liking.Jeff Allen

At this point I was pretty familiar with the Ride Command system. The high-resolution 7-inch touchscreen is supposed to work with any glove, though it didn't always, and displays eight info options: built-in points of interest, turn-by-turn directions, time, altitude, outside temperature, tire pressure, plus the 100-watt AM/FM with Bluetooth, and USB input. You also get audio info, a vehicle trouble code readout, vehicle status (tire pressure, voltage, engine hours, oil change), vehicle info (speed, fuel range, rpm, gear position), dual tripmeters (fuel range, miles, average fuel economy, average speed), and ride data (heading, moving time, altitude, altitude change). Whew. That's a lot to digest.

Joshua Tree
Gnarly? Grotesque? Maybe. But Joshua trees are always striking to look at, and the park that holds them is just as fascinating.NPS
Joshua Tree
Life finds a way in Joshua Tree.NPS

In the predawn quiet of the desert, I connected my iPhone with Ride Command to play U2's The Joshua Tree (obviously!). Volume control is an easy reach with the left thumb, and Bono's scratchy tenor whispered through the Limited's perfectly positioned 100-watt speakers with unbelievable fidelity as we rolled down Highway 62. I don't even like U2 these days, but when the song playing is In God's Country, I had to admit there was some synchronicity.

Because there's nowhere on earth like Joshua Tree National Park. I hadn't visited in years, and the park itself still feels remote, though there were plenty of crowds when I passed through, and I was bummed to see lots more vandalism than on earlier trips. More than anything, Joshua Tree National Park conjures up a mood, and all those crooked trees with dramatic silhouettes still fascinate me. Even the insanely outsized, irregular rocks look like they're defying the laws of physics. Why the hell would you graffiti them?

But now I’m cruising again, and the fairing-mounted speakers are sounding awesome. The Joshua Tree is one of those albums that flows almost perfectly, start to finish. It’s 20th-century U2, full of hope and spare chords, well before the band succumbed to their 21st-century, manufactured selves. Throttling up on the long stretches of desert highway between gnarly rock formations, the Limited’s Thunder Stroke 111 engine easily steps up to the task, jumping to warp speed as it changes character and feeling way more spirited than you’d expect 900 pounds on two wheels to.

Desert riding
Plan ahead for desert riding: Carry plenty of water, sunscreen, snacks, and a full repair kit.NPS
Pioneertown
Pappy & Harriet’s is the go-town joint in Pioneertown for mesquite-grilled meats and a cool Western vibe.Andrew Cherney

So it was day three with the scorching sun in full bloom when the Chieftain and I rumbled up from Yucca Valley through Pioneer Pass. After cresting a rise between unreal rock formations, Pioneertown appeared like a mirage on what felt like the hottest day of the year. Pioneertown is all dirt roads and cracked pavement, which demand lower speeds on a big bike, and here the Limited's weight can be a bit of a challenge—849 pounds fully fueled. But the gravel parking lot at Pappy’s beckoned, so I turned in. Even though it was still early, I was dripping in pools of sweat. The sun’s rays had breached the Redland mountain range, and I could feel their blast-furnace intensity on my red cheeks. The Indian’s bright ambient temperature gauge flashed in protest: 109 degrees.

At Pappy’s the food is grilled on an outdoor spit, but I headed inside for cool darkness, where Old West ambiance rules. Unexpected musical guests are a regular thing at Pappy’s and I was tempted to hang out, but after three days in the desert, the decision was clear: time to head home.

As for Ride Command, it proved to be an excellent road-trip companion. The design is user-friendly, and its 7-inch screen makes for easy access and viewing even in bright sunlight. The interface is intuitive, and you can choose what you want to display on the customizable split screen—the toggle is right behind the clutch lever.

Pioneertown
We don’t need no stinkin’ asphalt: Pioneertown still looks much the way it did when it was first built 75 years ago.Andrew Cherney

I also found the navigation to be spot-on for a guy who usually just mounts an iPhone set to Google Maps on the handlebar and forgets about it. Ride Command goes several steps further, updating you with important things like fuel status, remaining miles, and nearby attractions, though I’ll admit at times it felt like too much information squeezed into the screen.

After 500 miles on the Indian Chieftain Limited, I found little to bitch about. Its styling and modern finishes strike a good balance between referencing the brand's history and tastefully updating it, and its touring chops are solid. But most importantly, it rolled with me unruffled, even when the original plan changed so many times along the way.

Indian Chieftain
The Indian Chieftain Limited: An able touring companion and an absolute comfort to ride.Jeff Allen

The Destination
Joshua Tree National Park: nps.gov/jotr/index.htm

The Chow
Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace: pappyandharriets.com

The Gear