Falcones in Death Valley
In August of '99 an Italian motorcycle club flew to Las Vegas, uncrated their motorcycles, and set off on a two-week, 2,000-mile tour of the Southwest. Fifteen of the riders were mounted on vintage Moto Guzzi Falcone singles.
After a ride that took in Tucson, Arizona - Silver City, New Mexico - Durango, Colorado - Mexican Hat, Utah, and Monument Valley, "The Moto Guzzi Classics" made it back to their hotel in Vegas right on schedule. Not content with this feat, several of the hard-core riders rolled out at 6 the next morning for a 260-mile ride to take in Death Valley. In August.
I met the tour at a Texaco station on Blue Diamond Road, and was invited along for the ride.
Tanks filled, at 6:10 we pulled out: six Falcones, two Moto Guzzi V11s, a Ducati 900, a BMW R1100 with sidecar, my XT500, and a chase car with trailer. We rode west toward the Spring Mountains under a clear blue sky.
The rising sun behind us colored the range pale orange. We left the city's morning rush behind, climbing long smooth curves through red rock canyons, past high desert grassland with scattered pinyon pines, flying up and over the pass at 5500 feet. We swooped through the downhill curves and shot out into the vast Pahrump Desert.
Ten miles into the desert, we turned left onto a narrow paved road following the Old Spanish Trail, a route used by the 49ers 150 years ago.
As we purred over the pavement at 55, the open desert stretched far away: to the south, 25 miles to the sawtooth peaks of the Kingston Range - west, 12 miles to the Nopah - and northwest, to the horizon.
We sped past the cultivated acres of Hidden Valley Ranch, a green atoll in a rolling sea of sand and rocks.
The road took us west to tight curves climbing the Nopah Range at Emigrant Pass. We thumped down the west side of the range with an occasional backfire, passed remote homesteads isolated in the barrens, and entered the oasis of Tecopa.
Palm trees and thickets of tamarisk shaded the road. We made a quick stop for a stretch, then headed north, along the waterless course of the Amargosa River, ten more miles to Shoshone.
We rode into Shoshone about 8. It's a small desert town of old frame haciendas built low and wide with plenty of shade. We pulled up at the "Crowbar" for breakfast. I stayed out to ogle the motorcycles.
The 1950 Falcone is a direct descendant of Moto Guzzi's first production motorcycle. The company started out in 1921 with a 500 flat single using the same 88x82 bore and stroke. In its first year, a racing version of their new Single won the prestigious Targa Florio road race - an auspicious beginning for a sound design that was continually refined, culminating in 1957 with the DOHC 140 mph racing Gran Premio. The classic Falcone was produced until 1967.
At first glance, the Falcone is an odd-looking machine - a closer look shows its oddity is ingenious practicality.
The cylinder position establishes a low center of gravity and uniform air-cooling of the head. The 16-pound external "bacon-slicer" flywheel is massive enough to smooth out the power pulses, while its unusual location makes the most efficient use of space in the engine bay, allowing a 57.5-inch wheelbase. Behind the engine is a 4-speed transmission. Two coil springs for the "suspensione posteriore" lie underneath.
THE FRAME is bolted up from 26 separate parts
Weighing 370 pounds, the bike makes 19 hp at 4300 rpm in touring trim, with a 5.5:1 compression ratio; or 23 hp at 4500 rpm using 6.5:1 in the sport model. Top speed on the sport is around 95 mph. Fuel requirement is 70 octane, minimum.
Moto Guzzi's singles have a reputation for bulletproof reliability in police, military, and civilian service, and the Falcone's handling has been compared favorably to the famous Norton "Featherbed" frame. Overall a thoroughbred.
While I was inspecting and photographing the motorcycles, chase car driver Regina Hayes stepped out to chat. Her husband, Patrick, was riding a V11 she had ridden to Vegas from the California coast. Though she'd rather be riding a motorcycle, she had agreed to drive chase for the club's ride.
The delightful machines attracted local people "in town" on errands. They marveled, and marveled even more that these vintage motorcycles had traveled Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. Told they were heading for Death Valley, one gent smiled and shook his head and said, "It's gonna be hot there today." Yes it is. The world is a tough place, but it only has one Death Valley.
The riders began to straggle out around 9, tending their machines: walk-around, check the oil, you know the routine. Time to get en route.
Since the Falcone's kickstart is on the bike's left, the rider stands alongside, with the bike on the centerstand, and steps down on the kickstarter with the right leg. The ratchet whirrs, the engine catches, and the music begins: a soft, ringing exhaust note. Here it is, in mp3,
We re-fueled and rode north two miles, then turned west-southwest, riding 15 miles across Greenwater Valley, gradually rising to 3400 feet at Jubilee Pass. From there we looked across several deep folds in the mountains, and the deepest: Death Valley.
Down we rode, dropping from 3400 feet to sea level and below. In the Valley, we turned north on Badwater Road. Now we could feel the heat, and there was no escaping it. 25 miles to Badwater.
BADWATER ROAD. The 10-mile pan, and the 2-mile-high wall of the Panamint Range.
We rode with the glaring 10-mile-wide salt pan on our left, and shattered sun-burned cliffs on our right. Blue mirage lakes shimmered far out on the pan.
The Falcones led, single file, leaning left and right in the curves, hammering their machines through the dancing heat waves like a squadron of mounted red devils. I could imagine prospectors' ghosts running for cover.
"They're here for somebody, boys."
"They ain't gittin' me!"
"Calm down, ya tommyknockers. They're not looking for us - they must be here on vacation."
We pulled into the parking area at Badwater and dismounted for a stretch and look-see. There were a couple dozen other tourists there despite the August heat. High on the cliff across the road, 282 feet up, a sign says: "Sea Level".
There's water at Badwater - a spring percolates to the surface and forms a small pool. The water isn't poisonous, but it's salty as sea water. A few miles further north, Salt Creek flows water six times saltier than the sea, with a population of desert pupfish that's been stranded 10,000 years in Death Valley, since the end of the last Ice Age and the evaporation of their native lake.
I walked over to the pool and squatted down at the edge. I was tempted to taste it, but I noticed a dead moth in quarter-inch-deep water. The moth had a wingspan over five inches, big as a small bat. I picked it up and took it back for show'n'tell.
Everybody was amazed and took pictures. "I didn't kill it", I explained. "It drank the water."
We mounted up and rode 15 miles north to Furnace Creek Ranch. Getting close to noon, the heat was starting to cook. By the time we pulled into the ranch, it was 110 degrees. We parked our motorcycles for a 30-minute break.
The chase car and sidecar were both carrying coolers full of ice-cold beverages. When one of the Falcone riders saw me drinking 100 degree water from my canteen, he offered me a delicious cold Gatorade. After a sip of that I must have sounded like I was having an earthshaking experience, and he made signs that I should by all means enjoy the hell out of it. Mighty fine people.
The red riding suits, the classic Guzzi motorcycles, and the sound of Italian being spoken drew every Italian tourist for miles, including some beautiful smiling young ladies. Sure wish I spoke Italian. We moved up on the general store's verandah and lived the good life at Furnace Creek: shade, a breeze, and cold drinks.
Furnace Creek Ranch was as close as some of the old-time desert rats ever got to civilization. They'd drift in, camp under the shade trees, and use the pure spring water flowing by in the ranch's irrigation ditches to wash the alkali dust from their clothes and skin.
STEAM TRACTOR replaced 20-mule teams hauling double-wagon loads of borax to the railhead.
The ranch was managed by Pacific Coast Borax to supply the mines with fresh beef. Visiting prospectors could get a cut, too, while they were waiting for their supplies to arrive from Death Valley Junction. Prospector and mining engineer Frank Crampton wrote, "Without Furnace Creek Ranch...Death Valley would have been intolerable."
Death Valley did prove intolerable for many, especially for tenderfoot prospectors in the early mining years. It's reported that in 1906, 32 bodies were found in the Valley. Temperatures rising over 120 degrees can draw almost two quarts of water an hour from a man walking in the sun. Get eight quarts low in that kind of heat and it's curtains.
Greenhorns weren't the only ones to bite the dust in Death Valley's terrible heat. Old John Lamoigne, called the "dean of Death Valley prospectors", was found dead in August 1919, 8 or 9 miles north of Furnace Creek Ranch. Old John's friends guessed he'd been trying to cross the Valley to reach his silver claim in the Panamints when he laid down and died. His two burros died with him.
Back at the Ranch, by the time we moved out the heat was getting pretty strong even in the shade. The high that day was 117. Bikes parked in the sun for half an hour taught us all about "Blazing Saddles."
HIGH NOON in Death Valley, and shade is getting precious.
After fueling, we left the shade and motored southeast on 190, up Furnace Creek Wash 3 miles to the lookout at Zabriskie Point. There, a couple of riders sat down on a rock wall to have their picture taken, and suddenly jumped back up - the rocks heat up to 200 degrees here in the summer. They were troopers, though; once they got over the surprise, they sat back down and toughed it out, laughing.
The coolers came out once more; a quick cold drink and, "Next stop Las Vegas."
We rode up Furnace Creek Wash, under the Funeral Mountains, 25 miles to Death Valley Junction. There we jigged right, then left, onto a new road heading northeast to the Nevada state line 5 miles away. Back in Nevada, we turned southeast and crossed wide deserts, riding toward Pahrump.
FALCONE at speed on a Mojave Desert highway. Hear them, in mp3,
I jumped ship outside Pahrump. The club riders had 55 miles to go, but I had 175 ahead of me. I took a lesson from Old John Lamoigne and laid up for a few hours in the hottest part of the day, finding shade at 5500 feet and taking in two quarts of cool water. I could feel my eyeballs unshrivel and plump up nicely as they re-hydrated, and I could see clearly again.
Riding through Death Valley in August on old-fashioned single-cylinder motorcycles may sound crazy, but we got a genuine taste of what the old-timers went through under the blazing sun. In that dense, shimmering, inescapable heat, we all found the real Death Valley.
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