Death Warmed Up

From Sunday Business Magazine

THE NAMES roll off the map like scene settings in some classic western: Furnace Creek, and Desolation Canyon; Badwater, Wildrose, and Stove Pipe Wells; Zabriskie Point, and the Funeral Mountains. This is Death Valley: the hottest, highest, lowest, fiercest place in the contiguous United States, the great natural barrier that separates the body of the American southwest from the Pacific Ocean, a national park the size of Connecticut where daytime temperatures can climb above 130 degrees. A century and a half ago when pioneering European emigrants took a wrong turn and stumbled into Death Valley on their way to the California gold fields, they were lucky anyone survived to tell the story. Today you can drive across the national park in the air-conditioned space of an afternoon – if you want. But that’s no way to tour Death Valley. To experience the dimensions and the desolation and awesome grandeur of the Valley – to travel fast and yet to experience the scene physically – for that you need a motorcycle.

by Richard Walker


Our plan was to ride from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in one day, on a route that runs through the heart of Death Valley. That means around 460 miles on the road – not too daunting on a modern motorcycle, which you can reasonably expect to be reliable and fairly comfortable. And since our party was made up of a handful of top executives from the Italian motorcycle manufacturer Ducati, there was not too much discussion as to what kind of bike we would be riding.

The bikes – or rather the Dukes, as Ducati aficionados would insist – were waiting in the palm-lined oasis of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Laguna Beach a few miles south of central LA. Before you start is the time to make sure that everyone in the party knows the route. And now is also the time to agree the method of riding motorcycles in a group, through potentially difficult terrain. This is very different to riding alone, where the mind and the eye are fixed exclusively on the road ahead. In a group, everyone must keep one eye on the road behind. If once you lose sight of the rider to your rear, you stop and wait. If the rider behind does not reappear, you turn back and find them. That way, nobody gets left behind in difficulties.

And then it’s time to start on the long road north, out through the endless urban ramifications of Orange County. Rule One of motorcycle touring: it is very difficult to get started. Motorcycles are personal items, to be worn, like clothes. There are a hundred and one small adjustments to be made before the rider is ready to hunker down for the long trip. For seven riders, add an hour at least for unexpected initial delays.

Before too long though we had hit Interstate 15, the motorway that curves up though southern California from San Diego, snaking past Riverside and San Bernadino, through the cool of the Angeles National Forest before turning east for Las Vegas. Rule Two of motorcycle touring: slow down. There seems to be something about riding motorcycles in a group that encourages speed to build up. Any individual surge on the throttle gets added to the overall speed, as everyone tries to stay in the group. A primitive crowd psychology develops. Inexorably, the speedometer climbs. And before you can say Clint Eastwood a patrolman has swung in front of you, lights a-flashing, and you find yourself on the hard shoulder being very polite indeed to a man in uniform.

The officer was not pleased – but America can often be forgiving to the visitor. He let us go – just this once, we understood – with stern warnings ringing in our ears.

Once truly out of the city and heading northeast, we peeled off the Interstate and on to California 395. This is the north road that leads all the way up through northern California, around Lake Tahoe and into Oregon and beyond. But we planned to follow the single-carriageway just seventy miles through the heart of hot central California, where mile by mile the land sinks down and dries out. Here the ‘basin and range’ country begins, signalling the onset of the true south-western desert. This is the barren flat land beloved of the US Air Force – and California 395 does indeed cut through the north-eastern corner of Edwards Air Force Base. When you turn eastwards once again on the road to Trona, the Death Valley country has begun. The only sign at this last turning says, ominously, ‘Good Fresh Jerk – 80 Miles’.

The Trona road leads nowhere – nowhere except Death Valley, that is. Here is where the first of those long straight highway scenes is revealed, familiar from a thousand films, with the rippling blue and brown mountains of the Panamint Range in the distance. You speed up, just to cool down. This is the visitor’s first chance to wrestle with the Valley’s tricks of perspective. The mountains seem to be five, maybe ten miles in the distance. And half an hour of hard riding later, the mountains are still there, still five, maybe ten miles in the distance. With each succeeding mile, you feel smaller. An hour or two of this and you realize you are just crawling in an immensity.

Trona is likely to be a convenient lunch stop, from wherever in California you are arriving. The town is a scattering of desert homes around a rail crossing just before you reach the boundary of the national park itself, and your choice of lunch counter is limited to either: hamburgers and Mexican, or hamburgers and Mexican. The Pinnacle Inn is friendly though, and a chance to cool off and rehydrate, especially if you have forgotten Rule Three of Death Valley touring: take plenty of drinking water.

While we ate we had a chance to discuss our bikes with the heads of the Ducati company (Rule Four is of course to make sure you have a decent bike). Touring a Ducati through Death Valley is not a journey anyone in their right mind would have undertaken twenty years ago, when the Italian machines had a deserved reputation for outstanding performance, numbing discomfort and exorbitant unreliability. But as with most contemporary bikes, that has changed. The modern machines have fuel-injected engines built to run the distance (we were riding the ST2 and ST4 touring models) and are tolerably comfortable. They don’t have the phenomenal reliability or the high-speed capability of the big Japanese four-cylinder bikes, but power delivery from the Italian V-twins is satisfyingly chunky, while the handling is outstanding for this kind of bike, and 135 mph is enough for most people.

Talking of which, Ducati president Federico Minoli warned us that he had been stopped for speeding once before on this very stretch of road, tracked by a spotter plane that patrols the Valley on the lookout for lawbreakers. We resolved to be careful.

But resolving is one thing. Being careful is another. Bowling along at 70 mph does not feel like going fast in Death Valley. The mountains don’t move. The road doesn’t alter. The wind doesn’t quite cool you. Trouble is, bowling along at 115 mph doesn’t feel like going fast either. It was time to remember Rule Two.

And as we came over the ridge at Emigrant Pass we learned another lesson: watch the road surface. The desert winds can blow sand ridges onto the roads, and flash floods can deposit mud and gravel anywhere. There are also gravelled edges on many of the bends at higher elevations in the Valley, and these can be treacherous – as Federico found out. As it turned out, the spill was nothing that a band-aid and a dust-down couldn’t take care of. But if you do run into trouble it is possible to find yourself stuck a long way from help (it’s quite feasible to ride a main road for many hours in Death Valley, and not see another vehicle). So the Valley’s Rule Six has to be: never travel anywhere alone.

But most of these rules are only common sense. They don’t interfere with the enjoyment of this remarkable place, or stop you absorbing the sense of unbounded terrain, the stark valley plains which roll on and on, where beyond the next range of mountains there is another valley, and then another. Here are huge yellow sand dunes, or lava fields, or mountainscapes thrown carelessly down across hundreds of miles. As you swing through the slow bends and settle into the straights the effect is to make the rider physically aware of an environment that the eye can hardly take in. Even the sky is extreme, where clouds gather massively in unfamiliar shapes and seemingly as wide as the state.

An hour of taking things not too fast and you arrive at Stove Pipe Wells, close to the crossroads in the heart of Death Valley. If you are spending more than a single day here this is a convenient place to stay (there are four hotels altogether in the national park, and several camping grounds). Close by is Burnt Wagons Point, where the nineteenth century ‘49ers’ halted and roasted their oxen, in desperation. Further south are the mountain sculptures of Zabriskie Point, panoramic Dante’s View, and Badwater, one of the hottest places on earth. To the north is the Ubehebe Crater, a half-mile wide hole in the valley blasted out by volcanic eruption, and Scotty’s Castle, a bizarre folly dating from the 1920s. Together with the many side trails to old mine workings and ruined settlements, the Valley can take up as many days as you have to spare.

And if you are stopping to dusk and beyond, there is more to see: roadrunners, foxes, coyotes and bobcats, which hide from the sun by day. There is also the foot-long chuckwalla lizard, which is not poisonous, and the sidewinder rattlesnake, which is.

But for us it was time to hurry on to Las Vegas. The way out of the Valley leads up a close-cut canyon – suddenly cool now in the late afternoon – and on through the Amargosa Desert. The road crosses the Nevada state line just past the ruined mining-era town of Rhyolite, on to Beatty and then down on Highway 95 alongside the huge Nellis Air Force Range which stretches most of the hundred miles to the casino city.

Hurry is what nearly undid us here. Highway 95 is a long, desolate and mainly straight ride to Las Vegas. Its main feature of interest is a Nevada state prison. And we didn’t see the spotter plane in the sky above.

“Now listen to me you guys,” said Officer D. Dudley. “Speed limit here is seventy. Okay? Eighty miles an hour, that’s not going to bother me. Understand? Eighty-three, eighty-four – maybe that’s not going to bother me too much. Okay? One hundred and fifteen miles an hour … that’s TOO FAST. Do you understand?”

We understood.

“You guys have got to understand how easy it is to die out here. This ain’t Death Valley. This here is Death Row. I could take you down to the jail for that speed. So now you get going to Las Vegas and you better not see me again.”

We understood. And we drove off into the moonrise, very slowly, just as a pair of bristling A10 Tankbuster military jets began to manoeuvre above our heads – rather sarcastically, it seemed.

Ninety minutes later we were turning on to Las Vegas Boulevard, the famous Vegas ‘Strip’, a shower, an iced beer and dinner only minutes away. We were very tired, very dusty, and full of interesting aches. But as we strode in our motorcycle leathers through the marbled lobby of The Venetian hotel, it did feel as if we had really been the distance.

> TRAVELER’S FACTS

Your correspondent rode a bike provided courtesy of Pro-Italia Motors in Los Angeles (818-249-5707), and stayed in The Venetian in Las Vegas (702-414-1000) where rooms start at $217 including tax.

Most motorcycle hire companies do not in fact offer Ducatis, due to their high cost of maintenance. One exception is Lotus Tours, which offers specialized Ducati tours for those who insist on the Italian sportsters. For example, a 10-day California tour including VIP tickets for the Laguna Seca World Superbike Race plus bikes, hotels, equipment and a support vehicle costs $4,650 per rider. Lotus Tours also offers custom Ducati-riding holidays. Visit www.lotustours.com or call 312-951-0031. For a different kind of riding experience Harley-Davidson motorcycles can be hired in Los Angeles from Eagle Rider Motorcycle Rental (800-501-8687) or from Rent a Custom Harley-Davidson (888-434-4473). In Las Vegas Harleys are available from Drive With Passion (800-372-1981).

If you are taking a motorcycle to Las Vegas, you will soon be thinking of getting out of the city to explore further the Nevada desert country. Easy trips from Las Vegas include Red Rock Canyon, a national conservation area just minutes from the ragged sprawl of Las Vegas’ western suburbs. Some fifty miles to the northeast on the road to Salt Lake City is the less extensive but more dramatic Valley of Fire, a state park featuring unusual rock formations that will almost certainly be familiar to anyone with a basic education in TV and cinema. But you may well feel that having done Death Valley, the Nevada canyons come as an anti-climax. In that case you might want to spend a day visiting Lake Mead and the stupendous Hoover Dam that helps keep Las Vegas alive – although be warned, more than a million others have the same idea each year.  Or if you are in town between November and April – which in any case is the best time to tour Death Valley – then just 50 miles away from the roasting heat of Las Vegas you can ski in Lee Canyon off Highway 95. Call 702-385-2754.

For Death Valley itself the National Geographic Map 221 is invaluable, as are the map of California published by the Automobile Association of Southern California, and the Road Guide to Death Valley National Park published by Double Decker Press. If they cannot be found elsewhere, all can be bought at Fred Harvey’s store in Stove Pipe Wells.

First Published in Sunday Business Magazine.

 

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