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Death Becomes Him
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me"
- Psalms 23:4
"Death tugs at my ear and says, 'Live, I am coming'"
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
"I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens."
- Woody Allen
For a relatively young man, I know more than a little about death and certainly more than I'd like. I've stared down the barrel of another man's gun on three occasions, been attacked with a knife twice, and a lead pipe once. I lost count of the fist fights long ago. My surfboard got broken in half in 20 foot surf over 300 yards out in the ocean and I came as close to drowning as one gets without acquiring a toe tag as a souvenir. Yes, I had a "near death experience". No, I didn't see a bright light or dead relatives. Yes, I'd be happy to tell you all about it, but you'll need to come to L.A., sidle up to the bar with me, and buy us a round of drinks 'cause that's the only way I tell the tale.
I've learned the hard way that there are worse things than dying. My eyes have witnessed things that I would give anything to un-see, and I've experienced moments of spiritual anguish that made death appear as a form of far sweeter kindness. I've been to Hell and I've met Satan, and unfortunately I didn't need to die to find either of them. But for all that I know about death, and despite living in California for 15 years, I had never been to Death Valley before. Now, thanks to some MOron calling himself Buzglyd, I can say that I have.
Buzglyd? Buzglyd? How'd he get mixed up in this whole thing? Well as fate would have it, last weekend I rather spontaneously found myself in possession of an '03 Kawasaki ZZR 1200 with about one week to play on it. So where to go? My first instincts said road trip up the CA coast to San Luis Obispo, do some burnouts in the Hearst Castle parking lot and such, but Sean, feeling the heady exhilaration of his role as MO's editor du jour, flexed his newfound muscle and vetoed that idea. Vegas run? Ashley shot that one down. Ebass in Vegas with the MO credit card? Oh c'mon, I wouldn't go crazy. Unless there were women involved ...or alcohol ...or gambling ...uh, maybe Ashley's right. Oh well, perhaps a short spin down to San Diego to work out Palomar Mountain. Lemme give the Buzzer a call and see if he wants to join in the fun. He's an S.D. local, and its always nice to benefit from an insider's info on the best routes and stop offs. "Sorry Ebass, but I'm going under the
laser and can't ride for awhile". "What a forkin' wuss! C'mon Buzz, canyon carving with half your field of vision and no depth perception is gonna be a total rush! I wanna mount a video cam on your tank just in case anything gnarly happens... not that it would or anything...just in case though". "Nice try psychopath, but you might wanna can the Palomar idea anyway. It won't be much fun on that 1200cc beast. Ever trek out to Death Valley? There's some nice riding out there and it shouldn't be too hot this time of year".
"Really Buzz? Death Valley? Hmmm, tell me more".
And so it came to pass that I departed from my cool and comfortable seaside home for a journey to the valley of death. At 9:00 AM on a Wednesday morning, there was still plenty of traffic to contend with as I lane-split my way from one side of Los Angeles to the other. Happy, happy, joy, joy. An hour of mirror-dodging later, I was free and clear and making pretty good time on my way East along the 10 freeway out to the 15 heading northeast towards Las Vegas. Three more hours and a brief jaunt north on the 127 and I had reached the park entrance by about 1:00 in the afternoon. The roadways to reach Death Valley were pretty much a straight shot affair with passable scenery mostly consisting of scrubby desert mesas, rimmed by some smallish mountain ranges. The sun was shining, the weather was hot, but not brutal, and the time had passed swiftly aboard the more comfortable than I expected Kawi.
When I had first set eyes on the bike, I didn't see a sport tourer, I saw a super sport, and I questioned whether the ergos would hold up to the rigors of long hours on the road. The windscreen seemed too small, the pegs seemed too high, the bars seemed too tight, and creature comforts like cruise control and heated grips were nowhere to be found. But you know what? It wasn't half bad. If it had been cold, raining, or a much longer trip, I may well have been singing a different tune but I arrived at Death Valley full of life and ready to ride some more. As for the vavavavoom factor, this "sport tourer" strafes asphalt like a low flying F-16. While I won't admit to anything that could incriminate me in a court of law, I will say that with throttle held wide open in 6th gear and enough wide open tarmac in front of you, you can watch the time-space continuum begin to warp around the fairing, and feel the smile on your face begin to warp around to your ears. Ahem, theoretically of course. For a more in depth study of the ZZR 1200, please see Stickie's review from last year.
On this particular day in mid-October the temp was probably around 100 degrees. Hot, but due to the lack of humidity, not uncomfortable. Make no mistake though, Death Valley is no joke, son. As legend would have it, DV earned its moniker by making beef jerky out of the occasional miner attempting to cross the valley during the 1849 California gold rush. How hot does it get? We're talking one of the hottest places on earth hot. We're talking 134 degrees Fahrenheit air temperature, the second-highest temperature ever recorded hot. We're talking a ground temperature of 201 degrees (11 degrees shy of the boiling point for water) hot. And you know what the weird part is? There's folks that actually choose to live here!
But wait, there's a lot more that distinguishes DV aside from the heat. Death Valley National Park's 3.3 million acres make it the largest national park in the contiguous USA. The park is only about 12 miles wide in most places, but runs 156 miles along a North/South valley formed between two major block-faulted mountain ranges: the Amargosa Range to the East and the Panamint Range to the West. It's highest point, Telescope Peak, reaches 11,049 feet in elevation, yet DV is famous not so much for its heights but for its depths. Nearly 550 square miles of the park lie below sea level, including Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the Western hemisphere.
In fact, as one enters the park from the South, along the 178 roadway, Badwater is the first designated landmark along the route. A vast salt flat area that appears, ironically, as if covered by snow. I was surprised to learn from the educational placard, that while rain is quite scarce here, Badwater never dries out completely, and in a testimony to life's persistence in the face of even the most inhospitable of environments, contains a species of fish - the Death Valley pupfish, which has adapted to the hot saline conditions by going into a hibernation state during dry periods to emerge during the brief episodes when a "lake" of several inches depth appears as a result of rare precipitation. I'm guessing that if the DV pupfish was a biker, he'd be an 18 year old wannabe stunter doing wheelies in highway traffic wearing shorts, sneakers, and no shirt, 'cause Death Valley has got to be the absolute dumbest place on earth for a fish to live. What were these lil' fellahs thinking!
Back on the bike, I trolled up to Artist's Drive, which is a one-way, nine mile loop through narrow passes between volcanic and sedimentary hills. Chock full of blind curves and deep U-shaped dips, The ZZR 1200 managed it all with aplomb and proved to be surprisingly nimble for its size. Mostly I felt no need to push things though, and took it easy, enjoying the constantly changing colors and formations. A particularly unique spot is known as Artist's Palette for the variety of shades displayed within close proximity to one another. As I arrived, an old hippie couple in a VW bus had apparently stopped to take in the view but couldn't get their love machine rolling again, so I helped push start it to get them on their way.
Thank heaven for manual trannies. Peace out, rock on, and try not to break down in Death Valley if you can help it, amigos!
A short turn East onto the 90 brought me to Zabriskie Point. The site offers a sizable parking area and in fact there were about a dozen tourists milling about, mostly speaking foreign languages. I am consistently amazed and somewhat dismayed that whenever I tour America's national parks, it seems that very few of the visitors are
Americans. While this is a purely unscientific observation, it seems as though the Japanese and Germans (among others) have a far deeper appreciation for the awesome natural riches that we Americans appear to take for granted. A very short but steep hike up from the parking lot provides a wonderful viewpoint overlooking mud hills eroded into shapes that provide fascinating objects of meditation and idiot-proof photo opportunities (assuming the idiot in question remembers to take the lens cap off).
Moving on from Zabriskie Point, I made my way up to Dante's Peak, which is a high summit that affords the best elevated views of most of the park's significant features. A 13 mile road climbs quite sharply to reach it, and culminates in a steep and winding section that offers some authentic canyon carving hairpins. From the peak, there is a dramatic view of Badwater, which is a horizontal distance of about two miles away, but over one vertical mile below. A trail runs several miles and traverses a number of peaks, each with their own unique perspective on the valley. There is typically a 20°F temperature difference between the two points and I could definitely feel the air cooling as I climbed. The placard, which showed the names of the visible mountains, mentioned that on a clear day from the summit, one can even see 14,495 foot Mount Whitney in the distance, making it possible to see the highest and lowest points in the US from this one place.
Having descended from Dante's Peak on my way back to the 190, I noticed a rock that had been kicked into my lane up ahead. This was a notable event only because overall, the paved roads were extremely good quality with virtually no potholes or crud. Despite the presence of abundant supplies of debris all around the road surface, virtually none of it appeared to have migrated onto the road. So how did that rock get there? Well, the answer to that question became quite apparent as I got closer. Quite simply, it stood up and began to walk! " Holy forkin' son of a screeeeeeech! Whoa Daddy! That's the biggest spider I've ever seen in my life! You scared the flippin' crap out of me you eight-legged freak!" So like any good motojournalist would do, I hopped off the ZZR, paused briefly to examine my rather impressive skid marks ....then pulled my pants back up and examined the skid marks I had left on the pavement as well. As the tarantula began making his (or maybe her, I didn't check) way to the side of the road, I dug out the Olympus and began firing away. "Yeah Baby, make love to the camera!", I said, and the tarantula did his best "Blue Steel" for me. I asked if he had an agent and he said he didn't so I gave him one of Maury's cards and told him to keep in touch and look me up if he ever came out to Hollywood. Then he scrambled off into the brush to eat some rodents or whatever it is that tarantulas do.
At this point, I had been riding all day and with the sun rapidly descending and the tarantulas coming out, I decided that it was time to look for shelter. Just outside the park, at the juncture of the 374 and 95 highways is a little town called Beatty, which is notable for having two of the most pitiful little hotel/casinos you will ever see and a half-falling down whorehouse that answers the eternal question, "Can something painted entirely in pink still be scary as hell?". I picked a hotel and for $38 including tax, I had a decent accommodation complete with swimming pool and Jacuzzi. I hopped in the whirlpool and eased my aches for awhile. Left a pretty nice film of desert dust in my wake to boot, as kind of my own personal "MO was here" signature.
Morning came and the final leg of my DV exploration was upon me. A note to the would be visitor, while there are certainly many roadside attractions in the park, many areas of interest were only accessible by dirt road and/or hike, which made them impossible to get to on the ZZR 1200 but would be fantastic on a duo-sport. Paris Dakar owners would be in heaven out here. I had two destinations left on my itinerary as I headed back into the park, and I was cruising the 190 headed North when I encountered a road runner, doing of all things, running across the road. No, he did not say "meep meep" as I passed, but he did tear off into the desert faster than I could pull over, disembark, dig out the camera, and take his picture.
"C'mon back man! Gimme some Blue Steel! Meep meep! Meep meep!" He wasn't having any of it. So I carefully checked my surroundings for falling safes and boxes marked, "TNT", and continued on my way.
Shortly afterwards I arrived at the 600 foot deep Ubehebe Crater. The crater was formed by a massive volcanic explosion over 3,000 years ago. The cinder and ash colors the surrounding landscape to this day. As impressive as the crater is, it's actually more amazing to consider the scope of ash spread all around the site. The earth is discolored for what I would guesstimate as several miles around. Looking across the valley, I noticed that the moon appeared crystal clear above the Western mountains. It's always a bit surreal to see the moon offset against a blue sky in broad daylight, and yet somehow it was perfectly apropos of the outer space-like landscape of the crater site.
The final stop on my itinerary was the sole man-made icon of DV. Scotty's Castle is a mansion with a truly unique and intriguing history. Born of an unusual friendship between a colorful prospector with a better knack for spinning yarns than finding gold (Walter Scott, alias "Death Valley Scotty") and a Chicago insurance magnate (Albert Johnson) who oddly enough, found Death Valley to be a boon to his health, this Spanish- style villa takes on a mirage-like quality amidst the desolation of DV. The Spanish-style "castle" offers guided tours of the interior by period-costumed rangers for a small fee. Having just missed the last tour, I stuck to the self-guided exterior tour and made my way back to the road.
As one might imagine, gas is at a premium out here in the desert, and pumps are few and far between. If you pass one, you stop. So before I headed back to L.A., I decided that a pit stop back in Beatty would be a good call. Having juiced up the ZZR, I pulled out into the merge lane (one of those deals with an arrow pointing you into the inner lane) and passed a pair of slow moving cars before merging over. I ramped up to speed, maybe 70ish in a 65 mph zone, and after a mile or so glanced over at my mirrors to see a police SUV cruising right on my tail with his rollers lit up. Oh, man, this guy must have been trying to get me to pull over for awhile! So I pull off, shut the bike down, tug off my full-face, and immediately start apologizing for not pulling over sooner. I explained that with the full face helmet on, in a tuck where I couldn't really see the mirrors, that I honestly hadn't noticed him and re-assured him that I wasn't trying to run.
He made a comment to the effect of, "Wouldn't have mattered if you did. There ain't no place out here to run to". To which my inner smart-ass replied, "Pig, this here ZZR 1200 will put 45 miles between me and here in about 15 minutes if I ask it to. So you just go on thinking that I couldn't have gotten away if I chose to try, but the Kawi and I know better". Fortunately my inner smart-ass remained gagged and hog-tied by my inner voice of reason for the duration of the encounter. "I didn't think I was speeding much. How fast was I going?". "Well, I didn't pull you over for speeding, I pulled you over for passing in the right hand lane back in town". Man, that is so typical for me. For all the speeding I do, I never get a ticket, but I always end up with dumb violations like failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign and junk like that. So I go through the necessary ritual of apologies and explanations. I pull out my business card and explain that I'm writing a story for MO, and show him around the bike. He offers me some extremely well informed insights regarding the relative merits of some of the local "ladies of pleasure" that the Nevada police department would probably not want to see reprinted here. And then a strange thing happens... he lets me go. Man, I never get let go! Suhweeeeet! I hadn't been offered a "get out of jail free" card in years!
As I made my way back to LaLa Land, I realized that DV wasn't really so scary after all. Oh sure you had your molten temperatures, crashed plane carcasses, ghost towns and giant spiders. But when you think about it, Death Valley not only didn't try to kill me, but even the cops and tarantulas were actually pretty darn friendly. Who woulda thunk? Death Valley, it's a nice place to visit, but man I still wouldn't wanna live there.
|- 2003 Kawasaki ZZR1200 -|
Four-Cylinder, 16-Valve Engine:
- Aluminum cylinders with chrome composite plated bores reduce weight, resist wear and offer superior heat dispersion
- Pistons feature reinforcing ribs similar to those in the NINJA ZX-12R Downdraft Carburetors with Kawasaki Throttle Responsive Ignition Control (K-TRIC)
- A throttle-position sensor monitors engine load so that its micro- computer can determine the best ignition timing for more power and better fuel economy.
Dual Fuel Pumps:
|Engine: Four-stroke, DOHC, inline four, 16 valves |
Bore x stroke: 79.0 x 59.4mm
Compression ratio: 10.6:1
Carburetion: Keihin CVKD40 x 4
Ignition: Electronic with Digital Advance and Kawasaki Throttle Responsive Ignition Control (K-TRIC)
Frame: Aluminum perimeter design
Rake / trail: 25° / 4.1 in.
Suspension, front: Cartridge-style fork with preload adjustment
Suspension, rear: UNI-TRAK® system with remote reservoir shock with preload adjustment
Wheel travel, front: 4.7 in.
Wheel travel, rear: 4.7 in.
Tire, front: 120/70 x ZR17
Tire, rear: 180/55 x ZR17
Front brake: 320mm dual hydraulic discs
Rear brake: 250mm single hydraulic disc
Overall length: 85.0 in.
Overall width: 29.7 in.
Overall height: 49.0 in.
Ground clearance: 5.1 in.
Seat height: 31.5 in.
Dry weight: 520 lbs.
Fuel capacity: 6.1 gal.
Wheelbase: 59.3 in.
Colors: Moonlight Silver