The Death Valley Run

We got on the road at first light Saturday morning. Ferris had my XT500 in the back of his van, and I rode the Blast. We headed east toward Walker Pass and the descent into the desert.

We didn't get far before the Blast ran fuel-starved and quit. I only had 100 miles on a 2.8 gallon tank, so we puzzled awhile and decided the tank vent hose must be plugged. We disconnected it and continued, and the bike quit again. This time I put it on reserve, and we got 30 miles further, to a gas station at Inyokern, without problems. The tank took 2.2 gallons. That's the most I ever got out of the "2.8 gallon" tank.

In Ridgecrest, we unloaded the XT and parked the van in a safe spot. I lashed my duffle on the XT, Ferris got his tank-bag on the Blast, and we took off east on a two-lane road across the desert..

I'm pretty fond of my ornery iron burro, and I was glad to be riding it again, but I have to admit to being temporarily spoiled by the Blast. For a while my XT felt like some kind of hillbilly hot-rod. Which, in fact, it is.

We followed 178 north along the east side of dry Searle's Lake to Trona, a company town that exists to extract minerals from the lakebed. The Blast hit 500 miles here, so we stopped and changed the oil. We left the filter alone since we had no spare. The bike took 1.8 quarts of fresh Valvoline Racing 20W50. From here on, the gloves were off.

Back on the road, we headed up and over the Slate Range, and down fast swooping curves into the Panamint Valley. Ferris set a good pace, about as fast as I care to go downhill with side-drum brakes and cheap tires. On the flats I pulled alongside and made sign language for a photo stop, and we got off the road at the Ballarat monument.

I saw Ferris get off the Blast and start hopping around on one leg looking at the bottom of his left boot.

"You step in something?"

"No! I scraped my boot going through those curves back there!" Sure enough, he tipped up the footpeg and there was a good chunk of rubber ground off. No harm to the boot.

We talked about riding the trail across the desert to the ghost town of Ballarat, at the base of the 10,000 foot high Panamints, but decided to get on over the range to Death Valley; and off we went.

The pavement got rougher, and narrower, and got worse when we turned off toward Wildrose Canyon and Emigrant Pass. The road through Wildrose is rough and potholed, with sections of pavement washed out. I took the lead on the XT, thinking it could better handle any ugly surprises, but the road was passable all the way through.

The next stretch corkscrews up to the pass, and we charged uphill around the curves, dodging sand bars and gravel left in the road by floods. At the top, I slowed to survey the scene and Ferris roared by me to lead the downhill charge. Up there, a mile high in the wide valleys under the summits of the Panamints, the desert brush looks like heather on the moors of Scotland.

The narrow paved strip swerved across the high ground past distant old mines and the ghost town of Skidoo, then coiled and dove into Emigrant Canyon, heading down into Death Valley.

We came out of the canyon 2200 feet above the valley floor, and pulled up to take in the view and get some photos. Ferris backed up for the long shot and laid down in the middle of the road with his camera.

"Joe, watch out for cars, okay?"

"Okay, I'm watching, and I have my camera ready." Good guys miss good shots.

We rode on down the long grade, refueled at Stovepipe Wells 5 feet below sea level, and headed across the valley. A few miles out we crossed a line of sand dunes, and Ferris signaled a left onto a graded dirt road running north, parallel to the dunes.

The surface was washboarded, and I was interested in seeing how the Blast's road-bike suspension handled it. Ferris appeared to be getting well jack-hammered, and he pulled far to the right looking for a smoother surface. That didn't work, so he sped up and tried to "fly" over the ridges. That worked until he hit a patch of soft sand and almost wiped out. The feet-forward riding position kept him from standing on the pegs to let his legs soak up the bumps. Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer choice; behind him on the long-legged XT I was smiling and shaking my head. He seemed a lot better off when he cut his speed to about 20, and the shock damping eased up to let the springs work.

We got back on good pavement and rode a hundred mile loop around the northern section of the valley; took in the 500-foot deep Ubehebe crater, and the bizarre Spanish-style mansion up in Grapevine Canyon called Scotty's Castle. At the crater we met an RV supporting a group touring the backcountry on dualsports, and met another similar group at Scotty's. Death Valley National Park is fairly laid back, and hospitable to motorcyclists, and there were plenty of us out riding. The Blast got a lot of compliments from every past, present, and future rider we met.

It was quite warm on the valley floor, and Ferris mentioned some "heat-pinging" from the Blast's engine. I wondered if it might be running lean down below sea level. Checking the carburetion was one of the reasons we rode there.

We rolled into Stovepipe Wells after dark, refueled the bikes, and got dinner in their Olde Weste restaurant. Our waiter came on like Pee-Wee Herman and kept the Old West in perspective. After chow we got a 6-pack of Steam Beer and rode up the east slope of the Panamints looking for a place to camp. We couldn't see jack in the dark, and wound up at a free NPS campground at 2100 feet. Great for the price, but no fires allowed. We drank beer, talked motorcycles, and crashed for the night.

Wind, Rain, and a Death Valley Blizzard

I heard some rain pattering on the canvas tarp at dawn the next morning. I poked my head out, saw a thick low cloud cover, and watched the wranglers drive up out of the valley pulling their horse trailers - a bad weather sign for sure. We were surrounded by endless desert and mountains. The sun rose to a crack between the mountain tops and the clouds, and shined an orange light on a crag miles away; then it disappeared.

Ferris was loudly sawing wood, so I got up and had a look at our accomodations. Water tap, trash cans, picnic tables. A hundred yards off, beside the road, I saw what might be a restroom, so I walked on over, getting my joints loosened up.

Sure enough it was a restroom, and very handy right then, but I found the toilet had been ripped out of the men's room. It was early, so I had a look in the ladies' room, and found everything up to code. For all I know this may be a felony in California, but I took the chance.

I was comfortably settled in when I heard someone enter. Uh-oh. A pair of sandaled feet with red-painted toe-nails walked into the next stall and turned around. I looked down at my scruffy combat boots - a dead giveaway. I waited for the right moment and made my escape.

Back at the camp a few people were just stirring about. We talked about the weather; they say there's a major storm coming this way, snow down to 2500 feet expected. A pretty young lady walked by. I looked at her feet - red toe-nails. She looked at my boots, then looked at me and seemed to go into mild shock. It was time to wake up Ferris and get on the road.

It only took minutes to get the motorcycles warmed up and our minimal camp outfit packed and secured aboard. We rode back down to Stovepipe Wells for coffee and breakfast.

After the meal I asked Ferris what he thought about the Blast. Right off he said he liked it, though he'd prefer a more modern riding position. He said a skilled rider on a Blast could keep up with the Twins well enough on twisty back roads, where top speed matters less, but the light Single would have to be ridden for all it's worth; and it wouldn't keep up on long high-speed Interstate runs.

We also discussed the weather. It was obvious that whatever we did we'd be hitting stormy weather, but we've both ridden enough to take that as it comes. My concern was the possibility of snow-blocked mountain passes. But Ferris was hot to see Furnace Creek and Badwater before we left, so we'd just ride hard on our luck. I made sure I got my thermos filled with hot coffee before we left.

The Blast and the Xtra Turismo 500, in reserved motorcycle parking at the front door of the Death Valley Museum.

The wind was bursting north up the valley, blowing swirls of sand across the road. We made it to the museum at Furnace Creek and had a good look around. Their "real time" weather center indicated a storm big enough to get around and over the Sierra. We were in for it, and it was time to beat the snow over the passes.

We got back to Stovepipe and made ready for storm-riding. I noticed Ferris pulling old plastic bags from various pockets; I was doing the same. We battened down the hatches, topped up the tanks, and headed into it. We pulled out just ahead of the snowplow.

Rain at 2,000 feet turned to thick snow at 4500. Our eye protection fogged up and we had to ride straight into the wind and snow without it. Crossing the mile-high pass was like winter in Scotland. We stopped to wipe the snow out of our eyes and have a few laughs over the Death Valley blizzard.

As we dropped down the other side of the range the snow turned back to steady rain. We splashed through Wildrose and out to the highway, settling in for the ride to Ridgecrest.

We hit a dry spell near Trona and pulled up for a break. My rain-suit kept me dry, and the thermos of hot coffee kept me happy. I watched two grim-looking BMW riders speed by, rear-set and tucked in over the tanks.

Past Trona we turned west into a straight canyon, a wind tunnel. Rain hit like shotgun pellets. Ferris had to drop the Blast into fourth against the force of the wind. I got low over the XT's tank and hung on like a sailor in a gale.

It was the storm's last blast at us. Before long we were on the outskirts of Ridgecrest and patches of blue sky showed through holes in the clouds. The mountains were covered with snow right down to the valley. A cold wind blew in behind the storm, and we were glad to push open the doors of a warm dry cafe for a pot full of strong black liquid heat.

Don't let anybody snow you about the Southern California climate. I can testify: it's all hype.

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joe@gazette9.com

 

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