A Taste of Death Valley

Two weeks ago I headed out to the Death Valley Noobs Rally to remind myself what desert sand tastes like.

The weather wizards forewarned us about high winds kicking up Thursday and Friday, and I had every intention of hitting the road bright and early Thursday. That would have been nice. Instead, I procrastinated some key bike prep until the last second, and figured what the hell, I might as well learn how to change my first motorcycle tire tonight too (this actually turned out to be a good idea). I found myself in the garage until the wee hours of Thursday morning, then caught just enough sleep to put myself on the road around noon.

This aligned me with about the worst weather window I could have encountered. I braved some ridiculous wind storms on the ride out, nearly getting blown off the highway every 5 seconds for a 50 mile stretch through what must certainly be uninhabitable wastelands near Lancaster and Mojave. I looked at my GPS when I hit the first strong gusts, and it showed something like 2 hours and 45 minutes left to Death Valley. Damn, I’ve only gone a third of the way so far… this is going to be pretty draining.

Heading into Searles Valley. Rode through this sandstorm for 50 miles.

Heading into Searles Valley. Rode through this sandstorm for 50 miles.

I spent a few hours averaging a 20 degree lean angle to compensate for the wind buffeting me from all sides, with the exception of a couple short-lived sections where the road twisted just enough to put the wind at my back. There were several sharp corners on the way to Trona where the wind changed direction with such force it nearly blew me into the guardrail. The weather stations in the area were reporting sustained wind speeds around 60mph with gusts up to 80mph. The ride in was pretty stressful, and I burned twice as much fuel as it should have taken due to the headwinds.

Eventually I arrived in one piece at Panamint Springs Resort and got to work setting up camp in the remaining daylight. I met the other 2 guys sharing my campsite, and we gathered in Ben’s van to avoid the wind and enjoy our dinner.

The first night around camp was pretty quiet considering no one wanted to socialize in the middle of a sandstorm, so I crawled into my tent early and laid there trying to fall asleep until the sun came up. Oh well, 2 nights of poor sleep should set me up for a fantastic weekend of intense desert riding.

2013 BMW F800GS at the Death Vally Noobs Rally

Nice morning to ride… or change your tire repeatedly.

I woke up ready to go the next morning, that is until someone pointed out that my front tire was flat. Hmm great… I’ve only ridden a few hundred feet of gravel in the campground and already have a flat, that’s a reassuring way to start the weekend. Luckily I just repaired my first motorcycle inner tube 2 nights before, and it was for a tiny Honda XR80 14″ rear wheel. If I could get that done, this 21″ front should be a piece of cake, right?

What followed was the most depressing display of tire changing skills I hope I ever have to witness. I can’t even remember if it took 3 or 4 attempts, but ultimately I got my front tire aired up and holding pressure. The original tube was back in there, now loaded with 4, yes 4, mountain bike tire patches. I cast aside my spare tube since I’d lost my patience with it (plus it was now riddled with pinch flat holes) and was lucky enough to borrow a new spare tube for the remainder of the rally thanks to Joel, the event organizer.

Struggling with a tire, still losing at this point. Photo credit: Sebastiano D'Aprile

Struggling with a tire, still losing at this point. Photo credit: Sebastiano D’Aprile

There’s a certain amount of technique and finesse that you won’t master until you’ve struggled through a handful of tire changes. I really hope my next attempt will be less demoralizing. I also realized I need to add tire lube and a valve core tool to my kit.

Earlier that morning I was introduced to Dan and Sebastiano, and we set plans for a mellow ride to a few Death Valley sights we hadn’t seen before… Then we noticed that flat tire, and proceeded to waste away the next few hours wrestling my wheel in the dirt. By the time we we’re rolling it was afternoon, and we were eager to make the most of the limited daylight.

We set our mental compass to Ballarat ghost town and headed off down the road until we reached the turnoff. We cruised south on some easy dirt sections and arrived at Ballarat in short order.

Adventure bikes in Ballarat

Ballarat’s second nicest building…

At first glance there’s not a whole lot to see around here. I rode around a bit, we took some photos, then we checked out the “Trading Post”. I walked in and was surprised to find myself in what felt more like an abandoned gas station garage. There was junk scattered around the floor, a few makeshift pieces of furniture, and an old chest freezer with a few dozen cans of beer and soda. I kind of expected a shop full of touristy trinkets and ghost town memorabilia, but was pleasantly surprised to find a much more authentic setting. I bought a barely chilled beer from a guy who, for all I know, could have been here since Ballarat’s mining hey-day. We hung out for a few minutes, and I relaxed on the porch eating some bison jerky and organic gummy worms… what a time to be alive.

Hanging out at Ballarat Trading Post Photo credit: Sebastiano D'Aprile

We missed the nude dancing burro show for today. Photo credit: Sebastiano D’Aprile

Once we were satiated, our trio explored Pleasant Canyon a little ways, then backtracked and hit the pavement towards Charcoal Kilns. These kilns were built in 1879 to produce charcoal for the Modock Mine smelter 30 miles away, but they were only operated for 3 years. They’re a pretty cool piece of Death Valley history.

Charcoal Kilns in Death Valley National Park

Charcoal Kilns in Death Valley National Park

We cruised back down some fun twisties, then rode over Emigrant Pass and up to Aguereberry Point. The view was incredible from here, but my best cellphone photography skills hardly did it any justice.

Panorama from Aguereberry Point

Panorama from Aguereberry Point

Hard to take a bad shot up here. Thanks to Sebastiano D'Aprile for taking the photo.

Hard to take a bad shot up here. Thanks to Sebastiano D’Aprile for taking the photo.

At one point the wind kicked up pretty ferociously and caught us off guard. I leapt a few feet toward my bike to brace it and looked back to see Sebastiano do the same. Unfortunately Dan was off pissing in the wind, so his KLR earned a dirt nap and another badge of honor.

Wind: 1, KLR: 0

Wind: 1, KLR: 0

We managed to fix a bent handguard and jammed throttle tube with a little caveman engineering, and the KLR was no worse for wear, perhaps even better off now.

Wide open space in Death Valley.

Wide open space in Death Valley.

Earlier we had considered adding Skidoo Canyon to the itinerary, but by this point we were running short on daylight and didn’t like the idea of missing dinner. We cruised back to the rally campground, grabbed food, and settled in for a nice night around the campfire. I broke out a 5L mini keg of Bitburger pilsner and some authentic gothic absinthe that I’ve been saving for the right occasion. Good times were had.

The next morning was less fun, but I dragged myself out of my tent since I knew we were heading to Saline Valley Warm Springs. After breakfast we took care of some last minute adjustments on the bikes and linked up with Dave who was interested in the same ride.

Turning onto Saline Valley Road.

Turning onto Saline Valley Road.

With much less drama than the previous morning we set off in the direction of Saline Valley. We cruised a scenic road that meandered over foothills and across valley floors.

Dave coming through on his BMW R1200GSA.

Dave coming through on his BMW R1200GSA.

We climbed up to South Pass then dropped down into Saline Valley for about 30 miles to the springs.

Dropping into Saline Valley from South Pass.

Dropping into Saline Valley from South Pass.

I had a blast flying down Saline Valley Road, and now I have 3 huge dents in my front wheel to forever remind me that 26psi is insufficient for that kind of riding on those kinds of roads. Lesson learned. I’ll try to flatten them out later, but at least my tire repair seems to have passed the test.

A wild burro at Saline Valley Warm Springs

Wildlife at Saline Valley Warm Springs

We got to the oasis that is the Saline Valley Warm Springs and were greeted by a few wild burros and plenty of scantily-clad free spirits. I debated hopping in a warm pool, but opted instead for a cool shower rinse.

Cool vibe at the warm springs. Photo credit: Sebastiano D'Aprile

Cool vibe at the warm springs. Photo credit: Sebastiano D’Aprile

Candid photo of us enjoying honeydew melon. Photo credit: Dave Benoit

Candid photo of us enjoying honeydew melon. Photo credit: Dave Benoit

After relaxing for an hour or so, we put our boots back on, divvied out the last bit of water and hit the road.

Airborne on the little piggy! Thanks to Dan Amado for taking the photo.

Airborne on the little piggy! Thanks to Dan Amado for taking the photo.

Dan and I stopped on the way out for a quick low-gravity photo opportunity between the warm springs and the Batrock Road signpost. We hit Saline Valley Road and I stretched the legs on the old girl, then took a breather in the shade at Lippincott junction while the guys caught up.

Finding shade at the Lippincott Road rock pile. Photo credit: Dave Benoit

Finding shade at the Lippincott Road rock pile. Photo credit: Dave Benoit

We headed back up South Pass through some switchbacks that seemed much sandier than I remembered on the way down. I stopped and took a break at the lookout near the Hunter Mountain turnoff and waited for the guys to catch up. After 5 or 10 minutes I figured something may have happened. I walked down past a few corners and didn’t see any activity, so I hopped on the bike and headed down the canyon. By the second corner I passed Dave, so I doubled back, and we waited a few more minutes for Dan and Sebastiano to catch up. Dan had decided to hold us up while he rolled around in the dirt, but none of us were complaining considering this view!

Group shot at South Pass. Photo credit: Sebastiano D'Aprile

Group shot at South Pass. Photo credit: Sebastiano D’Aprile

The rest of the ride back to camp was routine but fun. I even managed to find enough wide open space to hit triple digits for a split second on dirt (on a totally legit off-highway strip, I swear, officer).

We turned back into camp and grabbed the last bits of chicken dinner as they started pre-raffle announcements. Joel, the mastermind behind the Death Valley Noobs Rally, pulled me up to the front to introduce me and my trip. Caught off guard, I rambled off the basics of my itinerary, then he took the mic and surprised me with an awesome challenge that he may have thought up right there on the spot. If I make it to Prudhoe Bay at the top of North America AND Ushuaia at the bottom of South America, with photos to prove it, then I get $500. How’s that for an offer? I felt humbled by the very idea of it. Those were already key destinations for my upcoming trip, but the acknowledgement and generosity of the Adventure Rider community is really motivating. Not sure I can show my face around there anymore until I provide some photographic proof!

The raffle ran pretty long due to the insane number of prizes they had to give out. I was hoping to catch a presentation by another rider named Elijah about his trip from San Diego to Tierra del Fuego, but missed it due to the tight timing that night. Luckily I had already read his whole ride report, and we got to chat for a few minutes while crossing paths at the restaurant.

I spent the last night hanging out and shooting the shit with some new friends.

The next morning was a slow start for me. A lot of riders hit the road bright and early, but I took my time to relax and reflect on the beauty and tranquility of the desert. Or maybe I was just recovering from a debaucherous night… You can draw your own conclusions.

Dan, Sebastiano, and I cruised back towards Los Angeles taking the route through Trona. We fueled up in Mojave and said our good-byes, then I broke away and rode another 2 hours back home.

The whole weekend was an absolute blast. I caught up with some familiar faces from the 2016 Pahrump Rally, made a handful of new friends, and met a number of riders with valuable experience to share about the routes I’m planning. I can’t wait to get back out there to do it again, but I’m still determining my schedule for South America at the end of this year. Hopefully I can make it to the 2018 edition of the Death Valley Noobs Rally!

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