To the west of Death Valley National Park in California, is a ‘one horse’ town by the name of Lone Pine. Lone Pine was to be the start. The finish line however was to be the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip, Nevada. The two could not have been more different. We collected the RV, stocked the fridge with Gatorade and picked up 2 beach bikes from Wal-Mart for $99 each, an extra just in case of malfunction.
On average, a beach bike will return around 10mph on flat ground and moderate inclines, and this doesn’t account for sightseeing and photographs. I knew this. Anything more is a struggle for the single gear. A training ride in the Chilterns had established this type of bikes climbing limitations. I had estimated that I could successfully ride for around 6 hours a day and therefore complete the total distance in 5 days.
Day 1: The Death Valley National Park welcome sign is just short of 40 miles from Lone Pine. It took 4 hours to get there, and Nikki was waiting with the camera. At this point I had already realised that the bike didn’t like going uphill, I was soon to find out it didn’t like downhill either.
At 10mph you are rewarded with a very different appreciation of your surroundings. If the wind is still, Death Valley can be entirely silent, spookily so. The flat valley roads are long, as long as the eye can see, and vehicles travelling at 60mph are easily seen and heard approaching from many miles away. It’s serene and there are no surprises, except of course for the low flying fighter jets!
The first day of riding ended with a glorious downhill section into a place named Panamint Springs Resort, it was not a resort and Nikki was disappointed. Like Lone Pine, it too had just one horse and a privately owned RV park. The rates were a little expensive, and the overly pale boy that took our money seemed weird. I wondered as a desert dweller if he had ever been outside and seen the sun. We laid claim to our pitch and drove a short distance to a nearby scenic point. Darwin Falls is an oasis in the desert and very much off the beaten track, more so than our RV should have had to endure, and was insured for. The 2 mile route was uneven but uneventful, as were the falls.
Day 1 Wildlife Update: We may have seen a golden eagle, as they are known to nest here high in the cliff tops, although it was probably a buzzard.
Day 2: Even though we have been in the USA for almost a week now, I still can’t shake the jetlag. At this time of year in California the sun has sunk by 17:30, and that only compounds the problem. It’s early to bed and early to rise. The sunrise is beautiful, as are the first 4 miles of the ride, both flat and easy. I take the opportunity to soak up the half-light vista and smile to myself.
At mile marker 54 the road begins to climb, only gently at first but that soon changed and it was obvious from the road signs what lay ahead, ‘Avoid Overheating, Turn Off Your AC Now’, and ‘Radiator Water 2 Miles Ahead’. The gradient was soon beyond the capabilities of the beach bike, and in just 8 short miles the rode rose over 3500ft. I pushed the bike for the entire time and completed the distance in just over 3 hours. At the summit I rejoiced at the road sign that read ‘Trucks Test Your Brakes’, some downhill at last.
I realise now that the decent into Panamint Springs Resort the day before had set in motion the quick deterioration of my pedal-back brake, or coaster brake as it is sometimes called. At Wal-Mart the bikes had been labeled with a general description of their intended use. The racer was listed as being suitable for flat and even terrain, the mountain bike for off-road use, and the beach bike for level ground and short distances. I still maintain that 270 miles is not too far for a beach bike, but I must concede that the downhill sections were cause for concern. The steep 4956ft descent proved to be too much for the coaster brake, and it finally surrendered 3 miles outside of Stovepipe Wells. I signaled my arrival in town with a clattering of loose bike parts and a plume of smoke from the back wheel. It was time to saddle up bike number 2.
The next town was too far to reach in just one day, so 30 miles later and as the light began to fail I retired 15 miles short of Furnace Creek. We parked at Texas Springs Campground and were rewarded with a fantastic lightning show and rain storm, which we duly watched from the comfort of the RV. The campers in tents however were not so fortunate. The hard ground and high winds were a recipe for disaster, and most gave up opting for a night in their cars.
Day 2 Wildlife Update: A dead snake and Nikki saw a coyote outside the Furnace Creek visitors centre.
Day 3: In the morning we made an early start to catch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point, we arrived in the dark and yet were not the first. It was spectacular.
Furnace Creek lies at 196ft below sea level, but the mission for the day was to get even lower, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. The vista is bright white and seemingly endless, however it is salt not snow. During the previous days riding I had been keen to photograph all roadside elevation signs 1000ft, 2000ft, 3000ft, 4000ft, 4956ft. Yet here at 282ft below sea level there are two signs. The first is at the information board, but there is a second sign fixed high above at sea level on the surrounding cliff face. From here the only way is up, and our goal for today was to reach Mormon Point.
Our closest campground was back at Furnace Creek. On arrival the sign stated that the campground was full, however after a little English accent sweet talking from yours truly, a space became available and we were in. I love, no adore chicken wings, any flavour, any style. I also like beer, any flavour, any style. Furnace Creek had a country restaurant that sold both, and it was time for Nikki to have a break from cooking. Until now and despite the RV fridge being fully stocked with ice cold beer, I had refrained from drinking until the ride was complete, but where better to try Death Valley Pale Ale? It would have been rude not to.
Day 3 Wildlife Update: A hitchhiking coyote at the edge of the road. I guess he had been waiting a while, as he was sleeping and woke startled when I passed by.
Day 4: The Crown Jewel of the Death Valley National Park is Dante’s View. It’s an overlook, and at 5475ft above sea level provides a wonderful panoramic view of the valley and Badwater Basin. It was on the list of sights to see, and just like the morning before I was up before the sun. Damn this jetlag! We hadn’t planned to visit Dante’s View for sunrise and breakfast, but as we now had the opportunity, the 15 mile race was on. At 25ft in length our RV was permitted to make the climb, the turns near the summit are just too narrow and tight for longer vehicles. At times I thought that Nikki might burst into tears.
It was a close run race, but we arrived just before the sun and unlike Zabriskie Point, we were alone in making the effort. The sunrise was beautiful and the seemingly endless bright white salt flats of the day before appeared as a muddy puddle of milk far below. It was freezing cold. Directly across the valley is Telescope Peak, and at 11,049ft it’s the highest mountain in Death Valley. The vertical drop from the peak to the Badwater Basin is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. After breakfast we returned to Mormon Point to continue with the bike ride.
Like many of the named lakes on Death Valley map, Manly Lake is also dry. However in 2005, severe flooding resulted in the lake reappearing on a large scale. More than 100 square miles were covered by the lake, allowing some tourists and park rangers to become probably the only humans to have ever canoed across Death Valley. The lake was about 2ft at its deepest point, a far cry from 800ft deep 10,000 years ago.
What surprises me about travelling at a slow speed is that you are not necessarily aware of the surroundings as they change. Imagine a colour wheel if you will with 100 segments. The first segment is the lightest shade of green possible, and the last segment is the darkest shade, the segments in between represent every other shade. Spin the wheel and the change from light to dark is a smooth transformation. Now think of the 100 segments as separate coloured cards, and every 10 minutes you are shown one card in the sequence. How long would it be before you see that the cards were changing slightly in colour? The same can be said for scenery, Death Valley is an ever changing but subtle landscape.
Jubilee Pass lies at 1290ft above sea level, and it’s a bugger to get to. The road climbs over 1300ft in just 4 miles, and needless to say I was pushing the bike again. However it was Salsberry Pass at 3315ft that was yet to come and I know what you are thinking, Jubilee Pass is almost half way there, it should be easy. But alas from Jubilee Pass there is a steep but very short downhill section that was definitely not worth the climb, and then you are almost back to square one. Despite my best efforts I didn’t make it to Salsberry Pass on day 4, however it must have been a tough climb, as one car stopped to take a picture and two others asked if I needed any help. Did I really look that desperate?
Our next stop would be just outside of the park at the town of Shoshone. The Timbisha Shoshone are the Native American Indians that have lived in south central California for over 1000 years. The campground host was a redneck character straight out of the Simpsons, with a southern accent and chewing tobacco. He checked us in and chewed and spat the whole time. I tried it once, and the key to success is not to chew, it just gets all over your teeth. We picked our site and settled down for the night.
Day 4 Wildlife Update: A dead snake, and dead tarantula.
Day 5: In the morning we drove back into the park, back to the very same spot from the day before, back to the same hillside and back to pushing the bike. Salsberry Pass was a welcome sight, and the downhill ride out of park and back into Shoshone was a joy.
The parks welcome and farewell signs don’t draw a line, whereby the scenery change is immediately apparent, the beautiful landscapes continue for many more miles in every direction. However the control of the landscape is relinquished, and despite the locally sponsored stretches of highway, the desert roadside outside of the park is littered with plastic and cans. I am rambling now, but I hate litter and if I had $1.00 for every beer bottle I saw between Shoshone and Las Vegas I could get very drunk.
The last 10 miles crossed the border into Nevada and into a town named Pahrump, the ride was flat but painfully slow due to a stiff headwind. It was Pahrump that we had stayed in at the beginning of the trip before venturing into Death Valley. It was also here that we bought the two bikes at Wal-Mart, of which one was found to be defective, or at least that is what the sales assistant deemed from the worn out brake. ‘Refund or replacement’ she asked? ‘Refund please’ I answered. Bingo! Nikki proclaimed that the Pahrump campground toilets and shower facilities were the cleanest that she had seen, and I would agree.
Day 5 Wildlife Update: Nothing to report, they say that Death Valley is teeming with life, and you just to know where to look. Sadly it’s a skill I do not have.
Day 6: Keen eyed readers will have remembered that the ride was only supposed to take 5 days, but there was too much to do and see in Death Valley. The park ranger interpretive photography talks at Golden Canyon, the sand dunes at Stovepipe Wells or the many wonderful sunsets and sunrises. And we barely scratched the surface.
At 64 miles the last day was to be the longest in terms of distance, and yet the easiest. Midway through the ride I had briefly contemplated finishing at the very first Las Vegas sign that I saw, but a following wind, a new found determination and a hot cup of gas station coffee put an end to that. It was a very cold morning.
For 20 miles Highway 160 is a dead straight road dotted with animal road signs. You know the type, ours usually warn of silhouetted deer or the occasional sheep. Here in the big country however the dangers are far more interesting. A cow with horns, a mountain goat, a donkey or burrow as they are known and my personal favourite, a tortoise!
At the foot of Spring Mountain the road winds it way skyward to the summit at 5502ft. Las Vegas can be seen from 20 miles away and it was all downhill from here. The finish line was in sight. Nikki met me 10 miles outside of town at a gas station, and we decided to meet again at the Mandalay Bay as it is the first hotel on the Las Vegas strip. It was also right by the iconic Las Vegas welcome sign. Perfect. Through Death Valley the term ‘traffic’ had meant being able to see two cars at the same time, in town the roads were busy and it seemed that every traffic light was against me, but from here it was all plain sailing. It was a beautiful evening, the setting sun was reflected high above in the windows of the hotels that line the strip. As I crossed the finish line the chilly descent from Spring Mountain summit was soon a distant memory.
Mission accomplished. 270 miles through the Death Valley desert on a $99 beach bike from Wal-Mart. Now where is that can of beer?
Nikki is the unsung hero here, and I could not have completed the ride without her. I know that she worried every day I was on the bike, and I am sorry for that.
Day 6 Wildlife Update: Still nothing.