November 21, 2015
Palm Springs was hot. Like the kind of hot that made 29C (89F) feel almost cool. Our plan for the day was Death Valley and a trip that wasn’t exceedingly far. I’d been excited to see the area since our early talks with Michael and Nuri in NYC during our May visit. I knew it was going to be hotter, more barren and would certainly make us feel more vulnerable on the bikes than any other part of the trip so far. Still, we were excited to see it and to hit the road.
Loaded up and on the bike, I turned on the ignition and the onboard computer flashed a rather nasty “LAMPF!” error at me. Hrm. Out came the manual and it turned out to simply be a blown headlight. We said our goodbyes to Sarah and Javier and headed out of town only stopping to fuel up and grab a pair of headlights for the bike. With no time to really install it I flipped on the highbeams and headed into the desert.
Since we’d spent the previous 200 miles with Joshua Trees the concensus was to circumvent the actual park and make up an hour on the ride since we were looking at a long, hot day on the road.
Once again past Morango and Yucca and then deep into the Mojave, the black tarmac unfurled in front of us for mile after empty mile. We wove our way through sand and sagebrush for hours then noticed a vortex in the sky. As we got closer we could see it was actually hundreds of Turkey Vultures moving like a tornado in the sky. All turning in the same directions, the funnels wide mouth at the top moved toward a faster, tighter moving group at it’s base. Then we saw another. And another. They were everywhere – hundreds and hundreds of them in their own little funnel clouds hovering over a point in the desert and then, after some time, breaking off in single file only to form another vortex elsewhere.
Turkey Vultures actually smell death. There’s a gas emitted by decomposition that their smell receptors are set to detect. It’s gruesome but also *so* awesome. Nature always finds a way, it seems. So, they circle over head, just as long as it’s not over *our* heads :)
For a good thirty minutes we wind our way through these vortices of Vultures until the desert is empty enough to no longer hold their attention.
We see signs warning us of flash flooding and it’s hard to believe that it happens here. It looks like this place has never seen water – but there are stretches along this road, where it dips a few feet and shows proof of the lands attempts to reclaim the road. In some spots the land is cut away from the road leaving a three foot ridge. This truly is a land of extremes. To think that there was a time that people would trek through this land in covered wagons and, after weeks without a drop of rain would suddenly find themselves washed away with a powerful surge of water.
The temperature was rising. My bike let me know that we’re at 39C (102F). I remember actually wondering – maybe even hoping – that we’d hit 40C just to see what that was like. We all ride in full gear especially after last years accident on Skyline Drive – so I wanted to see how temperatures like this would feel. We weren’t even in Death Valley yet and I’d almost certainly come to regret wishing for more!
We stopped for water and a bite in Shoshone and were mildly harassed by these crazy, massive fly-like things that were terribly poor fliers and kept bumping into our heads.
Shortly, we were on the road and heading west into Death Valley. The road started with a climb over the Amargosa Range before quickly descending into the valley itself. 41C, 42C, 43C – the temperatures were rising at an alarming rate as we dropped. The hot air would suddenly get hotter and we’d know that it had just jumped another degree. I opened my visor thinking that the air would cool me off. In fact, opening the visor was completely the wrong thing to do since the wide blast was much hotter than the air being forced through the vents. Down went the visor.
44C, 45C (113F). The sand has now being replaced by salt-flats where every drop of water had been sucked out of the ground. The minimalist vegetation was now gone. Not even the sagebrush survived here. I checked the temperature of the engine and was happy to see it was exactly where it always was. Such a good bike. The temperature had now hit 47C (117F) and a new problem had come to mind. With the ambient air this hot, and with the hot sun beating down on the road with no clouds for cover, we became completely aware of how hot the tarmac would likely be. Hot tarmac is a tire-killer and my rear was already almost done. After about twenty minutes at that temperature, I could feel the bike getting greasy into the corners. The back was stepping out and I was far from pushing. With that little suggestion I rolled off the throttle and stayed slow the rest of the way.
After about an hour, Nita and I were overheating. The landscape around us was so amazingly alien, I wanted to stop an take pictures. The sun and heat were unrelenting and the desire to play tourist was overtaken by the need to get cooler. Nita was a champ. I knew that the heat was her Kryptonite but rather than complain she just kept on rolling along while also letting me know that she’d prefer not to stop between here and Furnace Creek, our final destination.
As we passed the lowest point in North America (282 ft below sea level) Michael and Nuri pulled in to stop. We pulled in behind them to let them know that we’d have to keep moving. “No problem, we’ll catch up” was Mikeys reply. It’s one of the things I love about travelling with them – no drama. We do what we do and we’re so fortunate to be so compatible when we travel together.
Another thirty minutes and we pulled into Furnace Creek, tired and hot. Nita’s heart – a quirky little ticker – was in full palpatations, racing wildly and skipping beats. She was overheated and needed to cool down. She laid down in the room which was wonderfully air-conditioned and we just sat quietly proud of what we’d accomplished.
That night we all chatted about the day, about how unbelievably hot it was there and about the “what ifs” of travelling by bike through something like that. It was survivor-skills stuff if you were to get a flat or, worse yet, were to have a crash. The situation with my tire wasn’t dire. Yet. But I’d lost a lot of rubber in the heat and another day with those kinds of temperatures would surely shorten it’s life considerably. We decided to hit the road at first light and take advantage of the cool morning air.
There was no problem getting everyone up early. It had cooled off considerably and the outside felt cooler than the hallway in the hotel. We quickly loaded up, downed a $3.50 cup of crappy coffee and then headed out. Not only was it cooler but we also had some cloud cover which was a godsend. The temperature was sitting at 26C (79F) at 7 in the morning. No complaints. I’d woken up at 5 in a panic about the location of my key. It happened from time to time and was something that I discovered about myself on the road. Nita had woken up to me searching naked in the complete darkness with only the light of my iPhone to help me discover it’s whereabouts. Kindly (as usual) Nita offered to help me find it but I found it before she mustered herself from the bed. I laid back down only to keep myself awake with thoughts of a tire that was on it’s way out. It was one of those mornings. What if? Ugh.
I hadn’t fallen back to sleep. Maybe it was the way the morning had started that had me on the throttle a little harder than normal. Death Valley was a beautiful and inhospitible place, and I wanted it’s barren, consuming, burning landscape behind me in case something happened. For two hours we rode by the salt flats, then through the rising Panamint Range and into cooler and cooler temperatures. I felt relief as I saw it disappear but also grateful that I’d had the chance to see and experience such a place.
We descended in to the valley and headed north flanked to our left by the Sierra Nevada Mountains as we wound our way up HWY 395 towards the evenings stop at Mono Lake. At Lee Vinning, we found a little cabin and settled in for the night and planned the next days route through Yosemite.