Thursday, August 27, 2009

Riding through Death Valley


I had passed through the Giant Sequoia National Park the day before, and then headed east of Vasila down Yokohi Drive, heading in the direction of Rt 190, then into the National Forest. I headed down what looked like an old, abandoned section of the road, and finding that it dead-ended into a cliff, just pitched my tent there. I have to say, of all the road signs, nothing is as tempting to me as "ROAD CLOSED". I think I camped somewhere in the vicinity of Milo, looking at it on a map. This was my route for the first part of the day; chosen mostly at random just from looking at the map for where the squiggly roads were.

View Larger Map

Now, this roads, just . . . JEEBUS H CHRIST this was a good road! VERY tight, twisting, epically scenic, completely empty, and loads of fun. Most of the corners, even the very tight 15mph ones (Of which there were a LOT) had good visibility, giving me the freedom and confidence to get the bike over more, knowing that the corner wasn't going to suddenly tighten up on me when I was already as far over as I could go. I was IN THE FUCKING ZONE for this part of the day; I finally seemed to be getting less spooked by the feeling of the footpegs hitting the asphalt.

A bike like this isn't exactly meant to carve corners; some would argue that the only thing cruiser-style bikes are really designed to do is to look cool. Because of this, the footpegs are set very low and wide on the bike, for that chillin', laid-back look. The downside to this is you can't lean the bike over very far in the corners before they start scraping the ground. They're spring-loaded so they bend backwards when they hit pavement, but lean the bike over much farther, and the non-bendy parts start dragging, removing the weight from the wheels and possibly causing a lowside. And ever since my lowside in Texas a few months ago, the feel/sound of the bike scraping the ground triggered a panic reaction. Usually it triggers me straightening up and hitting the brakes, and sometimes hitting the brakes before straightening up. (THIS IS A VERY NOT GOOD IDEA, PEOPLE. I DON'T KNOW WHY I'M NOT DEAD).

But the road this day was smooth and devilishly twisted, with aforementioned good visibility and good run-off/crash areas. I was getting some confidence back, starting to lean inwards in the corners more, sometimes starting to hang off the bike to straighten it up more, and the feeling of the footpegs scraping the asphalt no longer triggered the OHSHIT reaction. And good god, there is no feeling quite as exhilarating as hanging off the inside of the bike while you're leaning it way over in tight s-corners at 50mph with your foot and knee just inches from the road. Hitting the apex perfectly, rolling on the throttle a little bit and really nailing it once you start to straighten up. It was perfect.

It was awesome riding. Just miles and miles of empty, twisting, smooth road.

The roads were so good, that . . . uh, actually I forgot to take any more pictures of them. But people, if you're ever in that area, ride that road. It's worth it.

This road got me up into the Sierras, and once I got out of the foothills, I was back in Great Sequoia territory.

At one point, when getting off of 190 and onto some un-named forrest road, I stopped at this rest area, which had what was really the nicest outhouse I'd ever seen

But then a thought struck me: I need to know the density of poo.

You see, I realized something. When taking a dump in a pit toilet like this, if you know the exact time between the poo leaving you, and then the splat/plop as it hits the pile of poo below you, you can calculate the exact distance that your dookie is falling! This idea delighted me, so I timed it on my stopwatch and set about the calculations.

I ran into a snag, though. I don't know the density of poo, so I can't properly calculate it's air resistance, which would affect it's acceleration through air. And then it struck me that given the altitude I was at (almost 7,000 feet), the acceleration of the dookie by gravity might be slightly faster then it would be in a pit toilet at sea level, and I had no idea how to factor that in. *sigh* My great plans to calculate the drop of pit toilets through the country has been foiled.

Aaaaaaanyway, moving on.

I kept on the road, going higher into the mountains, enjoying the roads the whole way. Remember a few years ago when the news was all talking about wildfires in California? Well, this is where they were.

What a view, though

(Can you spot the road that brought me up here?)

The road crested the range here, before starting it's long and winding downhill trek down the other side of the mountains

This sort of altitude was having a very, very noticeable effect on the bike. An engine (at least, a carbed engine that hasn't been re-jetted) will make only around 75% of it's rated power output at these altitudes rather then at sea level, and on a bike with this much crap on it, it was noticeable. A lot of the even minor hills wanted 4th gear, and I had to row down to 3rd more often the I was used to.

I stopped at a scenic look-out to snap a picture of the plateau stretched out before me before heading downhill.

(That's Mt Whitney way in the distance on the left)

Down I went!

The climate change once you get to the other side of the range is drastic. I went from lush, powerful sequoias and pines to scrub brush and little dwarf desert plants. There were still some odd hillsides that were green, but not with the density that there had been just a few miles before.

At this point, I ran into a problem. Spending the first part of the day with the bike leaned way over doing Jeremy Clarkson impersonations (POWER!!!!!!!) hadn't been kind to my gas mileage, and I hit the reserve tank at just 115 miles. By my best guesses, I had maybe 40 miles on the reserve (.8 gallons), and according to the map, the next gas station was 52 miles ahead. Gulp.

Fortunately, it was all downhill from here. I spent at least 10-15 minutes at a time just coasting, keeping the clutch in with the bike in gear and only using the engine for the occasional braking. This was nice and twisty as well, but it's trickier to ride aggressively downhill then it is uphill. (Going uphill you're on the throttle a lot more, which keeps the bike balanced better)

Due to the fact that I hardly needed to use the throttle, I think, I made it out of the mountains and to a gas station with a little bit to spare. Looking back the way I came;

I'm used to seeing tree lines where there's no trees growing ABOVE a specific altitude, not the opposite.

After getting gas, I headed north on 395, taking a right at Owen's Lake to get back on 190, heading in the direction of Death Valley.

Yeah, it was flat and boring, but after the first half of the day wearing myself out flipping the bike back and forth, I didn't mind so much. It was also hot: That morning I'd started off wearing pants and a couple shirts under my mesh riding gear, but at the gas station I stripped down to only boxer shorts and a wicking under-armor tee-shirt under my protective jacked and pants.

Owen's Lake is a "Lake" in the desert sense of the word. Maybe once a year, there's water in it, but that yearly rainfall serves to keep some color in the place. I headed up out of this valley, and into another range.

Just after I entered Death Valley National Park, I stopped at this scenic turn-off for a picture of the bike (I swear, I was there too!)

And then . . .

Then I heard something. A very, very powerful sound. A sound both deep and high-pitched at the same time, a shrieking, roaring sound, a sound like the sky was being ripped open. I know that sound, but . . . what the hell?!

FUCK MOTORCYCLES. F-18 Hornets are the way to REALLY travel and sight-see.

As if that airshow back in Quebec wasn't enough, this was just another punch in the face of another direction I could have/should have taken with my life. I can't describe how much I wanted to be in that aircraft right at that second. Sure, I've got a pretty decent life, but I'd trade it, all of it, to fly those. I placate myself by telling myself that my eyesight would have kept me out of the cockpits, but the truth is, I don't have the work ethic for it. I like doing things at my own pace, on my own terms, in my own time. Translation; I'm lazy. I've seen pilots wearing glasses before, and my prescription is quite weak (I can legally drive without my glasses). If I'd had the determination, I could have made it work.


It was dumb luck I got this shot. I just happened to have my crappy little point-and-shoot camera out, and thankfully it actually focused properly this time. But he was gone in an instant, and by the time the camera recycled for the next shot, he was almost out of sight down the valley.

(view full-size to see him, a tiny dot slightly left and down of center)

I did pull out my Canon and put on my zoom lens, hoping he'd make another pass, but I waited there for almost half an hour with no luck. As long as I'd taken the Canon out, I decided I should keep it out for the day. See if you can tell from here on which pictures were taken with the good camera, and which ones were taken with the crappy camera.

I bumbled down a little side-road to what was promised to be a good look-out. This was a bad road. I was all over the place to avoid high-centering the bike.

The view was good, though, looking down over the Panamint Springs valley, and the road I'd take down there.

(mmmmmm, Twisty!)

(The road going across this valley, and up the range, over to Death Valley on the far side)

I was down to about half a tank when I got to Panamint Springs, so I topped up, even at these prices.

Going up the range on the other side of this valley, I made my way down the foothills of the other side, into Death Valley proper.


And yeah, it was hot. It was fucking hot. Death Valley held the record for the highest temperature ever recorded on earth for a long time, at ~134 degrees. It was edged out by Lybia in 1922 by a couple of degrees, but that isn't much consolation when you're riding through it.

Riding through this really is like being blasted with a giant hair dryer. You cover up as much as you can, including closing the visor. You might think that at these temps, you'd want the visor cracked for some airflow, but the truth is it doesn't help at all when the air temp is this high. It's more pleasant to simply close the visor and all the helmet vents, and deal with it.

Of course, the air temp being this high means that my water bottle temps were this high. It was a battle to get myself to keep drinking; the water in my bottles was so hot that I've got burns on the roof of my mouth and tongue. It was made worse by the fact that my water bottles are old Gatorade containers. When it's cool, you don't notice an aftertaste, but now there was just enough of a hint of the lemonade that was once in there to make it disgusting.



I was at sea level now, but there was still a good deal of downhill to go.

And because I'm a glutton for punishment, did I take the quick route out of the valley? No, I turned right at the "town" of Furnace Creek to head down the length of the valley, to Badwater Basin (Casually named by a prospector in the 1800s after he couldn't get his mule to drink from it. He scrawled "Bad Water" on his map, and the name stuck).

On my way there, I got distracted by what was labeled as "Artist's Drive".

It's a little one-way narrow road that winds away from the main road for about five miles into the foothills. No point of it, expect to be pretty.

Not a lot of run-off room if you screw up in a corner. It was one-way, though, so you could really make use of the whole road (when you didn't have to suddenly straighten the bike up to avoid banging your head on a cliff)

It was getting late in the day, and Sol made it clear that he wasn't sticking around for long.

I pushed on down the main road; I wanted to get to Badwater Basin before the light left compleatly.

The sun vanished behind the mountains by the time I got there, but there was still enough light to see what was going on. A walkway had been built out over the lower, marshier areas of the bog, out to where it was solid enough that people walking weren't going to damage anything

Kinda reminds me of Black Rock City. Only with less naked people.

Run-off water from the mountains collects here in incredibly briny pools and evaporates, leaving salt and other minerals behind.

For as harsh as this area is, it's incredibly delicate. The life that is here clings on with it's fingernails; there's a species of slug that lives no where else on earth besides here.

Looking back at the road.

See that white sign way up there on the cliff?

Yup. We're well below sea level.

On a side note, it seemed the vast majority of the tourists here were from out-of-country, mostly french. I was hearing enough french that I accidentally greeted the gas station attendant with "Bonjour".

Walking out onto the salt flats, it was clear that some people just couldn't leave well enough alone. I don't get why they felt the need to do this.

The light was fading rapidly, so I pushed on south, aiming to at least get up into the mountians before camping. This isn't a high-altitude desert like Burning Man; this place retains the heat overnight, sometimes never dropping below 100f.

It was dark in about an hour, and I was ~3000 feet up into the mountains. Going down what looked like a promising side road, I WOAH OH SHIT.

The bike fishtailed wildly on loose gravel, and while I kept it upright, it ended up here.

God, this felt familiar.

I had learned my lesson from last time, though. I took the luggage off the bike, and using a rock as a crude shovel, excavated the ground out from behind the rear wheel. With the luggage off the bike, I was able to use muscle power (SHUT UP, those of you who've seen me naked. I DO have muscles!) to lift the bike up and backwards. It fell over once I got it out, but that wasn't a big deal. I rode it out, back to the main road, and put the luggage back on.

I kept going into the mountains, finally taking a little turn-off that looked more solid then the previous one. I ended up on what looked like an old, abandoned section of the road, and finding that I couldn't well be seen . . . well, why bother with a tent when there's no bugs?

Maybe I should have stayed lower in the valley. It got down to a chilly 75 degrees that night, which for cold-blooded me, was enough that I had to pull out the sleeping bag, instead of being hardcore and just sleeping in my riding gear. Ah well.

That was my ride through Death Valley. It made me a much sweatier, smellier person then I was before.

1 comment:

  1. You know that first vista you see when you come from the Owens Valley? Where the whole of Death Valley just sits before you? That's the spot where Luke & Obiwan first see Mos Eisley.