Death Valley '97: A Cold Day in Hell

Carl Tyler writes:

“Dave called. He and Paul will be leaving at 6:00 instead of 5:00,” said Michele as I arrived home from a late dinner. “Ok, guess Tom and I will see them on the road.” Two days of mid-October rain had left everyone wondering what the snow conditions would be like crossing Tioga pass at 10,000 feet. Several calls to the CALTRANS automated road condition hot-line netted the same response, “No unusual conditions to report.” Yet no one felt particularly comfortable with the idea of placing their fate in the hands of an automated system from the same folks who gave us [insert your favorite traffic nightmare here].

At 4:20 am I was confirming the location of all my cold weather gear. Jacket … check, bibbed pants … check, electric vest and gloves … check. Ok, guess I’ve got everyth … ooops! I suppose it WOULD BE NICE to have the electrical connection TOO! Plug and cord … check. Ok, now I was set to go.

It was still dark, but I could see a few stars through the overcast. Cold though. Even if Tioga was open, what about the ice? At 4:45 I found Tom waiting at the donut shop. We shared our concerns about the weather. Nonetheless, our sprits were high. We were headed for Death Valley, motorcycling heaven. Somehow we would find a way. This was all part of the adventure.

Tom and I were looking forward to some interesting photo opportunities this weekend. He was going to concentrate on shooting black and white, while I was looking forward to moving down to 35 mm. In the past I had limited myself to normal lenses with large and medium format cameras. This time I brought my old Nikon and 80-200 mm lens. The compression effect of a telephoto lens would be a good match for the vastness of Death Valley. Tom had also been saving a block of slide film in his freezer for this trip. Of course, with the film STILL in his freezer, it would not be doing him much good.

A quick blast down California Drive at 50 mph (waive to the nice officer!), and Tom was back with the film in short order. The Death Valley ride officially began at 5:05 am, as we departed for Tracy … and breakfast at the Orchard restaurant.

“Extra crispy hashbrowns, please.” “Mine too, please.” Another healthy choice breakfast was on its way. The ride over had been crisp too … temperatures in the 40’s. What must it be like at 10,000 feet? No rain though. That was a good sign. As breakfast was being served, Glen and Chris arrived. No doubt in their collective minds: they were headed south … a bit longer, but a sure thing. I liked those odds. “Whaddya think Tom?” “Here’s to Bakersfield!”

Out in the parking lot, all of the cold weather gear came out of the bag, and on to me. Funny, seems to have shrunk a bit since last winter … no time like the present to put those YKK zippers to the test. Ohhh, that feels good when those electrics kick in … like dipping your fingers in warm water. Gee, I wish I’d thought of that BEFORE I’d put all my stuff on. Oh, well I can wait until the next gas stop … I think.

Made it. Let’s see, one zipper up, one zipper down … and begin. The ride down to Bakersfield was the usual fare, this time down Highway 99 instead of the more direct Interstate 5. Traffic was a little trickier, but the route was less boring. It continued cold, with occasional sprinkles, but we were lucky. By the time we made Bakersfield it was raining heavily along a frontal line that extended from San Francisco through Yosemite. We had chosen wisely.

A trip up the Kern River Canyon is your reward for suffering the purgatory of riding to Bakersfield. As we approached the canyon through the orange groves, we were at the end of a long line of cars and trucks. Then three cars turned onto a side road. Then a few more peeled off. There was one truck in front as the road began to twist into the canyon. Then it took the first pull-out. We had the road to ourselves. I started looking for a place to buy a Lotto ticket: our luck was running right. What a ride! Fresh pavement, soft light, and water boiling over the rocks below from the recent rains.

Lake Isabella seemed to come too soon, and we found ourselves at the Southern Belle for lunch. Three neon beer signs in the window assured the highest quality dining experience. Actually, it wasn’t bad. We had another entree from the recommended list of the latest culinary best seller, “Feeling Good About Your Eating Disorder: I’m ok, you gonna eat that?”

Ridgecrest marked the point at which we could finally shed some of our many layers of clothing. At last we were down to jackets and jeans … and mostly sunny skies. We could start to hear the call of Panamint Valley, and Death Valley beyond. One hundred miles to go. Even the thought of Trona sounded appealing!

“Welcome to Searles Valley.” That’s what it says on the sign as you enter Trona. Trona is the home of the Trona Railway. The town is best known for the production of … you guessed it … Trona. In case you did not know, Trona is the impure mineral form of sodium carbonate. It is the stuff that is left after the water runs off the hills and is left to evaporate, forming the dry lake bed known as Searles Lake. Trona is also the chief component of the dreaded ring-around-the-bathtub, which speaks volumes about the character of the town. The other key factor in determining the nature of the town’s environment is the wind. It blows. Some might say, it sucks. Whatever your preference, the movement of a large volume of air, at high speed, over a vast expanse of the powder-fine mineral discussed above serves to create an environment which has inspired the name of the local high school sports teams … the Trona Tornadoes. I love going through Trona because it makes everything else in my life seem so much better.

Just north of Trona, the road begins to rise above the valley floor. As you crest the ridge, your eyes are treated to one of the truly great views of desert landscape. Majestically, the Panamint Valley bursts into view. I never cease to be in awe of the panorama laid before me. We were doubly blessed this day, as the skies were the equal of the valley below. Billowing clouds on a striking blue background, casting their shadows on the valley floor and surrounding mountainsides. Tom and I scrambled for our cameras. For the next 20 minutes we tried to capture this sight on film. While we may ultimately be pleased with the images, they will never approach the moment of having been there. Those visions, we recorded somewhere else.

Back on the bikes, and running through the curves down into the valley, I was reminded of the Kawasaki Tom and I saw stuffed into the guardrail a few years ago. And the ambulance seen for miles in the distance rolling from the scene. Harsh justice for a momentary lapse in judgement. Unconsciously, I scrub a little speed. Then the road straightens at the bottom of the pass, and the pace quickens. Eighty miles per hour feels comfortable. We made it. We’re here. A favorite place. A perfect moment. A thumbs-up to my riding partner, and him back to me. And to my friends who have ridden this road in the past, Frank, Dave, Don. I feel their spirits.

The bikes (no matter how well they run somewhere else) ALWAYS seem to run better here. Harley, BMW, Honda … somehow, as you make the turn at Trona junction and read the sign that announces 28 miles to Stove Pipe Wells, you sense an equilibrium in the combination of road - bike - rider. The sun is at your back and everything seems so right as you head up the road toward Townes Pass. This day, heat had not been an issue, as so often had been the case in years past. Tom had been comfortable in a long sleeve shirt since Ridgecrest, while I wore my jacket and lightweight gloves. As we headed up the pass it got cooler, and then cooler. As we approached the summit near 5,000 feet it got COLD. It felt to me that it must have been in the low 40’s. I am sure Tom would have been pleased to verify that … if he could have formed the words.

The trip down the hill into Stove Pipe Wells is best described as 15 minutes (or less, depending upon your pace) of pure joy. Beyond the top of the pass the road dips and snakes for a few miles, just to give you a taste of what lies ahead. Then the valley opens up to you, and the road straightens becoming a steady downhill, punctuated by dips and abrupt crests … otherwise known as whoop-de-doos. Approaching one of these crests feels like running off the edge of the earth. All you can see is the top, with no assurance of what might be waiting on the other side. Taking one at speed will completely unload the shocks. You may even get slightly airborne. Older bikes provided the added thrill of a toe curling wallow as the rear shocks re-compressed. The newer bikes take the whoops with ease, and invite you to try the next one with a bit more daring.

Checking my rearview mirrors, I could see Tom hanging back. He wasn’t intimidated by my speed. He was giving himself room. Tom wanted to see if there really were “wings” on his Goldwing. One moment, Tom’s headlight was just a speck behind me. Seconds later he pulled along side. I could see a wide smile inside his full face helmet, and his eyes glowing beneath the smoked screen. The eyes of the fellow in the motor home were glowing too. He had just experienced a flashback to his childhood, watching the Wizard of Oz as Dorothy sees the witch fly by on her bicycle. The motor home wouldn’t be down the hill for another five minutes though. By that time we would be at the front desk of the motel.

Stove Pipe Wells. We had arrived. Negotiating the gravel parking lot, we positioned the bikes in front of our room. Looking beyond the bikes, there were the sand dunes and the mountains beyond. This day was cool, only 85 degrees. Tom had iced-down Sierra Nevada in his saddle bag cooler. I brought the cigars … Montecristo No. 3. The morning’s disappointment was a distant memory. It was time to celebrate another great ride.

As the sun disappeared behind us, and the beer disappeared from the cooler, another bike pulled in … Paul, on his Concours. He, Dave and Jerry had missed Tom and me at breakfast by less than 5 minutes. They had chatted briefly with Chris and Glen, and made the decision to try for Tioga … trusting in the automated CALTRANS road report. Big mistake. The threesome made it to Buck Meadows before they saw a sign advising that Tioga was closed. At that point, Dave and Jerry decided to test the meaning of “Road Closed” by pressing onward. Given their time constraints, if they couldn’t go Tioga, the trip was over. Paul decided to head south, via Highway 49. Paul made it, Dave and Jerry did not. As we quenched Paul’s thirst, a motion was made that we replace Dave’s “No Fear” sticker with one that says “No Show!” The motion passed unanimously.

Meeting adjourned, it was time for Paul to re-mount and withdraw for Beatty, NV, where he had reservations at the picturesque Stage Coach Motel. Paul’s credo: “When you ride with me, you ride alone.” He departed in the now raging dust storm for his 60 mile odyssey through Daylight Pass to the land of high elevation and low temperature. Enjoy the pool Paul.

For Tom and me, it was time to renew old acquaintances with some of the staff at Stove Pipe. Less Martin and his wife were back after a two year absence. They had been traveling around the country on their 200,000+ mile Goldwing. Now they were back for a while to rest and save for the next great adventure. Gina still worked behind the bar. Her hair was blonde this year. She had recently gotten married, and still had her `74 El Dorado convertible - white with red leather. I think the lasting relationship will be with the car.

Interesting people on our side of the bar too. There was Speedy, who appeared to be somewhat over-served this evening. Speedy spent his days removing debris from the roadway near Townes Pass. Speedy’s claim to fame was having worked for Easy Rider’s magazine, sometime in the dim past. His barmate this evening was a girl who reminded me of Whoopee Goldberg. She did an a capella version of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” for the listening pleasure of the bar patrons. Actually, she sounded pretty good. That was my clue that it was time to mosey on back to the room.

Saturday morning dawned crisp and clear. The wind had died, but the billowing clouds were still there. A rare sight in Death Valley. Tom and I caught the early morning light with cameras in hand. Paul had said he would try to meet us by 8:00 am for a breakfast ride to Panamint Springs. By 8:30, we figured Paul was a no-show. We later learned that the thermometer in Beatty had frozen, and no one dared set foot outside. Evidently the steam rising from the pool had frosted the windows of the motel, giving it a decidedly Nordic appearance. Going with that theme, the casino tried to book an act featuring Heidi, Peter and their goat for the main lounge, but the group already had a long term engagement at Frenchy’s down the road.

Keeping with recent tradition, Tom and I made the run over to Panamint Springs for breakfast. Also keeping with tradition, we ate outside on their veranda … wearing heavy jackets. At 60 degrees, we didn’t linger too long over our meals. The waitress wasn’t too interested in standing around chatting, either. We did learn that she was from New Jersey, via Las Vegas, and had learned to love the desert over the last several years. In the number of times Tom and I have visited Panamint Springs, we have never seen the same waitress twice. They never last as long as six months. This one promises to be the exception. We’ll see.

Making an encore run-down-the-hill, Tom and I decide to keep on running toward Furnace Creek. It has the only premium fuel in the valley, and is a pleasant place to stop and relax … and a fun ride. One of the things about riding in the desert is that you tend to wick up the speed a bit … wide open spaces … few cars on the road, and plenty of room to pass. Eighty miles per hour begins to feel normal. Slower cars become impediments to your progress. Targets to be picked off. I would pass, and Tom would be right in my hip pocket. Double yellow lines only challenged us to get around more quickly.

About 5 miles from Furnace Creek we were in a series of curves necessitated by prehistoric mud flows from the nearby mountains. Humming along nicely, our pace was slowed by a minivan who committed the thoughtless act of pulling onto the highway from a side road without giving deference to our right of way. I slowed momentarily, and then took my opportunity to zip by, with Tom right behind. Again, the road was clear ahead. As it should be. I glanced back in my rear view mirror. No Tom. In the far distance I caught the blink of a bright red light before it was obscured by a nearby hillside. Whoops! Where did that come from?! It was just dumb white van … THAT GOT IN OUR WAY! I cruised at the speed limit the rest of the way to the gas station, and pulled casually up to the pumps. A minute or so later, a white van pulled up behind me. With a Park Ranger. With a radio. Back at the scene of the crime was his partner in a marked patrol vehicle (fully accessorized with light bar) with Tom. Said patrol vehicle was right behind Tom and me when we passed said dumb white van … said patrol vehicle having pulled out of the same National Park Service driveway. Meanwhile, back at the pumps, I was getting an earful from the van driver. “You passed me on a blind curve!” I considered explaining the superior acceleration and maneuverability characteristics of a modern high performance motorcycle to the ranger, but chose to simply nod my head slowly instead. I thought about using the warp speed defense: “It’s only blind if you aren’t going fast enough to get over and back in your lane in time to avoid an oncoming car. I was going way fast enough.” I continued to nod my head, and kept my mouth shut. “You wait over there for my partner.” “Ok.”

A few minutes passed as I considered removing temptation from my coruptable clutches. This never would have happened if I were still on the Harley. Curse you demon horsepower! Then Tom appeared. Just Tom, no partner with poisonus pencil ready to pounce. “What happened??” “She was right behind us when we passed. The lights came on before I even got back into my lane.” “Did she give you a ticket??” “No. She said we were lucky this time. She had to go to some sort of medical call, and didn’t have time to give us a ticket.” TOM, YOU SILVER TONGUED DEVIL!!! As for me: I promise to be good. I promise to be good. I promise to be good. The speed was rather sedate for the rest of the trip. I also decided to by the next Lotto ticket I could find. The $20 million was a sure thing!

Furnace Creek was a good place to take a break, and consider the potential consequences of our actions. As Tom and I were taking the last licks of our Hagen Das bars, Chris, Glen and Paul pulled into the parking area. We shared our war story, and accepted their flimsy excuse for not attending our breakfast ride. After a brief sojourn, Tom and I decided to look for photo opportunities in Rhyolite. The rest of the gang decided to bask in the warmth of Death Valley. We would meet the following day in Bishop to watch the 49’er game.

The rest of the trip went without incident. Tom and I snapped our pictures in Rhyolite. The following day we paid visits to Ubehebe Crater and Scotty’s Castle. We took the back road into Big Pine over Lida Summit and Westgard Pass … a first for Tom. We caught the second half of the game at the Mountain View Motel in Bishop. Chris, Glen and Paul were there to greet us with cold beer. That night at dinner, Chris played his favorite joke on the waitress. “Are you finished?” “No, I’m Danish.” Ha, ha, ha! The following morning, Chris and Glen got an early jump. Tom, Paul and I stayed behind, having breakfast and waiting for temperatures to rise. Tioga had re-opened the day before. We looked forward to a short ride home.