Death Valley daze

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Getting down

Things are looking up down there

Here’s a free tip for the national parks people responsible for Death Valley: tell potential visitors it’s just like going down into a mine — without the claustrophobia!

A friend who was working in a copper mine told me once that when you’re going down into the Earth — way down — it’s as if you pass through discrete layers of temperature, getting hotter and hotter as you get lower. The feeling is exactly the same as you descend from Owens Lake to Panamint Springs and then from Towne Pass into the valley proper. You may not be able to see the layers, but you sure can feel them, even in spring.

The effect even makes the air feel progressively thicker and seems to slow your reflexes until you feel as if you’re moving through clear molasses. Drinking a lot of water is the obvious defence against this and I put away a litre straight in the little Panamint Springs shop. It didn’t seem to make much difference.

Not that it was even all that hot. The thermometer at the Stovepipe Wells ranger station called it 45 degrees and I’ve been a fair bit hotter than that right here in Australia. But I was definitely in a daze by the time I got to the station. I suspect the scenery and the name have something to do with it.

The name is actually a bit of a PR triumph (see box). The scenery, however, is truly spectacular. You know how people are always saying that Australia’s deserts are “the bones of the Earth” because the land is so old and worn away? Well, the far younger Death Valley looks like the Earth’s biggest piece of open heart surgery instead.

The enormous masses of rock expose their strata like flesh that’s been cut by a, uh, a really big scalpel. Not a sharp one, because it’s all rather jagged, but a big one, sure enough. Death Valley’s mountains are naked, of course — there is almost no vegetation, certainly not on the slopes — but they look more than naked; they look visceral.

Umm … I’m not making this sound especially attractive, am I, unless you’re rather more seriously into major surgery than you really ought to be. Blame me, not the scenery. It is, in fact, wonderful — big and brutal and overpowering, but wonderful. And it’s interesting looking across Rainbow Canyon to … wow, is that the road? It looks more like a scratch.

Like all deserts, Death Valley can have the most amazingly clear air, which makes it very difficult to work out the scale of what you’re seeing. No, that’s not an exceptionally shiny aluminium rubbish bin lying on its side there by the road across on the other side of the valley; it’s a full-sized Airstream camper.

Riding into Death Valley is a snack. There are well-maintained tarred roads in from Lone Pine in the west (the way I came in this time), from Tonopah in the north and Las Vegas in the east. From the south you can sneak through between two huge patches of the Mojave Naval Weapons Center from Ridgecrest, and if you come that way you’ll pass a turnoff to Ballarat. A ghost town near Post Office Springs, this was named after the Australian town by returning miners. See, who said the cultural flow was all one way?

The valley, along with the adjacent Panamint Valley, also has quite a good network of smaller tarred roads, but if you don’t like dirt, beware — many of them finish as gravel tracks. The back roads are still generally in pretty good condition, even if they are dirt. Let me put it this way — all the ones I have sampled are better than, say, the Sandover Highway.

It’s only about 85 miles (135km) from civilisation at Lone Pine (several nice-looking bars) to civilisation at Stovepipe Wells (the Badwater Saloon). There is precious little civilisation along the way, saving the minor exception made by the abovementioned Panamint Wells shop and servo. It seems further, partly because after the Darwin turnoff the road constantly twists and turns down and up the valley walls and partly because you find yourself rubbernecking at the ever-present impressive views. It wasn’t especially busy, either. I coasted for nearly five miles at one stage with the engine off, enjoying the quiet. Not that the standard exhaust system on the Honda Fury is loud.

Stovepipe Wells village looks a lot more like a mining camp in the Pilbara than a village, but the accommodation is clean and the air-conditioners might wheeze, but they work. There’s a pretty useful general store across the road, too, with a couple of petrol pumps next to it. Here’s a useful tip: automatic petrol pumps in US national parks take international credit cards, unlike all the other pumps I tried in all of California. That can be useful if you’re trying to fill up out of hours, the way I was when I left in the cool of the following morning. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After a welcome cold shower I made my way over to the Badwater Saloon where Crystal dispenses some excellent dark lager from, err, well, I can’t remember … maybe it was a bit too excellent. It was certainly strong, but I don’t recall where it came from. The evening was pleasant, chatting with a few of the locals and an English couple who had rented a Harley in Las Vegas and were riding to San Francisco in easy 200-mile stages. The bloke was retracing a bike trip he’d made back in the early 1980s — about when I first visited — and we compared notes on what had changed in the intervening quarter century.

Not much, we agreed.

Except that the beer is much, much better. The jalapeno poppers were OK, too. These are de-seeded jalapeno peppers, filled with cheese and spices and crumbed and then, naturally, deep fried. They go well with beer and I had them for dinner.

The night sky, which I sampled on my walk back to my room, is very big, very clear and very beautiful.

I got away just after dawn and rode through the remarkably crisp and cool morning air to Furnace Creek. This is a much bigger settlement than Stovepipe Wells and offers a variety of accommodation, not just motel rooms. It seemed quite crowded and very cosmopolitan after the sparseness of my overnight stop and I wasn’t at all sure I liked that. It was good to get back out on the road.

A small group of riders passed me while I was taking a photo of the old traction engine by the side of the road, all wearing bandannas rather than helmets. Call me conservative if you like, but I can’t get used to that any more. On second thought, don’t call me conservative.

The Honda Fury, despite its effectively non-existent luggage capacity, is an excellent bike for this kind of riding. You sit upright, in a relaxed position and with a good view all around. The bike has plenty of power to climb and overtake, but it doesn’t encourage you to ride fast the way some sports tourers do. The electronic fuel-injection coped perfectly with the changes in altitude. Despite the fat rear tyre, the bike handles well — but only on tar.

The previous day, I tried to get out to the viewing area at Father Crowley Point over a pretty rugged dirt road with lots of big rocks and small, loose gravel. I made it halfway before I came to my senses and turned around, in itself no mean feat. The long wheelbase and fat rear tyre combine with the substantial lever of the extended forks to make the Fury very unhappy on that kind of surface.

But that’s not what choppers are for. They’re for traversing deserts on two-lane blacktop and that’s just what I was doing, very happily, past Zabriskie Point. It’s not a natural feature, by the way. It’s made up of heaps of tailings from the borax mines. Borax, by the way, is a component of many detergents and cosmetics and is even used as an anti-fungal compound for fibreglass and as an insecticide. Clem Salvadori recommends seeing Zabriskie Point by moonlight, and one day…

Breakfast was in the pleasantly homey little café next to the Amargosa Hotel (and across from the Opera House) at Death Valley Junction, and then I headed south to Shoshone. This is a typical desert road that follows the Amargosa “River” valley and is quite spectacular in places.

Little more than a service station with a shop, a motel and a bar across the road, plus a few dozen houses, Shoshone was nevertheless a welcome sight. It was getting hot again and I topped up on fuel for the bike and water for me. I think we both took about the same amount. The impressive desert scenery and scarcity of settlement continue pretty much all the way to Baker, where you’ll find a huge Greek restaurant (I kid you not) and access to the freeway system.

It was time to leave the back roads and get some miles under my belt; if you want to do that in the US, you’d better be prepared to use the freeways. My plane was leaving the following day and I still had stuff to do in Los Angeles. Next time I’ll do Death Valley justice and spend a few more days there. The place definitely deserves it. Got to see Zabriskie Point in moonlight, plus I’ve never even been to Scotty’s Castle, and Crystal’s dark lager is worth revisiting, too.

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