Those were hungry days for McQueen the entertainer. A tough kid growing up in wartime L.A., he had done time in the Chino, Calif. reformatory ("It was the competitive urge, I think, and I converted it into stealing cars"). The Marine Corps and a stretch in the Merchant Marine straightened him out and showed him much more of the world; Actors Studio, followed by many stage roles, large and small, confirmed him in the direction of drama.
But fast cars and motorcycles remained an alternate mode of expression. During the late 1950s he took off on a bike trip through Cuba. "We were quite a group," he recalls. "An actor, a poet and a guy who was just plain nuts, or maybe we all were. Hurricane Audrey was sloshing around on the East Coast while we zipped down to Florida. Then we ran from Havana to Santiago, about 967 or so kilometers, as I recall. Batista and Castro were shooting it out down there in the Sierra Maestra, and there were uniforms everywhere. I was still a little wild in those days, particularly when I was on the juice. So what happens? I get thrown in the calabozo. I sent a telegram to Neile Adams, my girl, to send money so's I could get out. Well, she later married me, but that time she said no. It wasn't so bad. The guard was a friendly dude, and he'd let me out of the cell so we could have lunch together—cheese and onions and wine—and that hot sun with the smell of the manzanita and the sewers. I suppose that's the great romantic lure of the motorcycle; it's a key to adventure."
Thus far McQueen's machines had all been "street iron," outsized, over-chromed jobs that were a terror on the highways but stick-in-the-muds off the road. He learned about dirt riding quite dramatically. "You know that cliff that leads down from Mulholland to Sepulveda?" he asks. "Well, I was riding along Sepulveda with Dennis Hopper when we saw these guys bopping and bumping through the weeds near there, off the road. It was Keenan Wynn and another guy on these strange machines, dirt bikes they called them. We asked Keenan if he could climb that cliff. 'Watch this,' he says. Varoom! Right up to the top. Dennis and I were standing there with our eyes out to here. The very next day I went out and bought me a 500-cc Triumph dirt bike."
Competition quickly followed—club races, hare-and-hound chases across the Southern California wastelands, point-to-points and snow racing in the High Sierra. "It's rugged riding," McQueen allows. "I remember one snow race up in the Sierra where I lost it just as I was coming up on this ragged old pine tree. One of the broken-off branches slammed right into my mouth. I was standing there spitting out bark and blood when a course official came up. 'Are my teeth still in there?' I asked him. I didn't want to waste any time taking off my gloves, so he felt around and said that they were loose but still there. I was just dumb enough to jump back on the bike and finish the race. Wow!" He shakes his head, grinning.
McQueen has also ridden in the real enduros, races like Las Vegas' Mint 400 and the Baja 1,000 from Ensenada to La Paz. In last year's Elsinore Grand Prix, a race through that small mountain-slope town and its surrounding gulches northeast of San Diego, McQueen was one of 1,500 entrants. As Harvey Mush-man, he started well back in the pack but managed finally to snake, bump and vault his way to 10th place overall, while his friend Malcolm Smith was lapping the field for an easy victory. "In my book Malcolm's the best all-round racer in the world right now," says Steve. "He's a gold medal winner in the Internationals, but he still runs all of it—hare-and-hound, trials, long distance. He's a fine mechanic, and he gets the most out of a bike. He's got a bad right leg, though he's not going to tell you about it. I want him to put a brace on it. If he breaks it again, it's going to be Adios City."
Intense as his own competitive instincts are, McQueen has found them changing under the influence of the desert; he respects that sternest of geographical gurus, though he is well aware of its quirky vulnerability. Cleat marks left by George Patton's tanks, training in the desert nearly 30 years ago, are still visible, but rain may follow the new tracks of a dune buggy or a dirt bike and turn imprints into washes. Too many desert freaks, whether cyclists or truck drivers, leave their junk lying around where they dropped it, beer cans, aluminum foil, bottles, the whole undegradable lot, where even a simple tire track ruins the esthetics of this austere, previously wild desert world. "You end up pushing farther and farther into the boonies," McQueen observes, "trying to escape from other people and their noise and their crap, but then they see your tracks and they follow you. It's the problem that confronts all of us in a jam-packed world. Who are we running away from? Answer: us. It's crazy, but what's the solution?" Dirt riders are discouraged from much of the desert area of California by new laws enacted as a result of the current wave of ecological awareness, but a number of motorcycle parks have been established, mainly around Los Angeles, to give bike people an outlet. This is only a stopgap solution, but McQueen approves of it, for the moment.
As for the desert, "I first began to understand it as a living thing back in my wilder days," he says. "I was interested in the Indians, and they had given me some peyote. This was way back before the drug culture got started, and people were still serious about the philosophical aspect of the hallucinogens rather than just kicks. Anyway, the peyote really hit me. I took off into the desert on my bike, bound and determined to whip it. I ran flat out, straight into the desert—I was all ego, challenging every bump and every gulch. I don't know how many endos I turned, plenty of them. The cactus ripped me up, the rocks chewed on my hide, I had sand in my nose and kangaroo rats in my ears. I rode until the bike ran out of gas, and after that I just lay there.
"It was dead quiet, night falling and my bike making these little crackling noises as the metal cooled and settled. I knew then that not only could I never whip the desert, but that the whole thought of trying to whip it was the most ridiculous idea in the world."
On this day there was no thought of whipping anything except city-style boredom. McQueen had driven up to Palm Springs from his L.A. offices (he runs a plastics company in addition to his celluloid affairs) to spend a weekend with Chad and a couple of riding pals before embarking on his next film. The movie, Junior Bonner, about a down-and-out rodeo rider—splendid McQueen casting—is directed by Sam Peckinpah, a man with a good eye for such currently unpopular human qualities as toughness, loyalty and contempt for death. McQueen's desert hideaway, standing on a sun-scorched ridge overlooking the wealth and desiccation of Palm Springs, is some decorator's dream come surrealistically true. There are kongoni skulls and zebra skin pillows, the mounted head of a Boone and Crockett-class bighorn sheep, a gold-plated Winchester .30-30 "presentation model" hanging on one wall ("much better than that silly little sawed-off Winchester I used in Wanted—Dead or Alive" Steve muses, spin cocking the rifle absently). The refrigerator is full of Cold Duck, Almaden burgundy, Coors beer and Gatorade—this is a dry climate. In the house, at least, it is also a somewhat sad one. McQueen is separated from his wife. "We've got our problems," he admits freely, "and we're trying to work them out."
Looking down into the desert from the poolside, McQueen points to the north. "I used to have a little shack out there in the flats—cost me only $102 a month, and I was perfectly happy with it. It was on a wash, and you could just jump on the bike and disappear into the giggle weeds. Oh, well." Chad is riding around the swimming pool on a bicycle, doing 50-yard wheelies and other stunts, clearly nudging his father to hurry up and get with it for the afternoon motorcycle ride. In everything but his cycle skills Chad is a striking contrast to his father: dark and open rather than blond and curt. He wears braces over his uninhibited smile and has none of that exasperating cocksurety so common to actors' children.