Feel The Heat!
Cruising California's Death Valley Aboard Honda's 1997 Valkyrie Tourer
It had, as so many have said in reflection, seemed like a good idea at the time. To ride through the natural furnace that is Death Valley. Hundreds of miles of nothing but sand, rocks and an occasional hearty sagebrush. A place where the land turns mean and punishes those who dare enter its boundaries. Where engines struggle against intense heat, gaskets disintegrate under its relentless assault, and radiators boil over with regularity.
What compelled me to make such a journey, I am not sure. Perhaps it was my tour, just weeks before, through the Monterey Peninsula. Having already traveled through the most beautiful part of California, I may have had some subconscious curiosity to see the Golden State's most hideous and inhospitable landscape. Maybe I was seeking my own brief glimpse of what Chris Scott encountered during his Saharan tours. Of course, I'm not naive enough to believe that a day trip through the paved roads of Death Valley could compare to Scott's adventurous treks into the African desert, but perhaps the chance to get a brief taste of what he experienced motivated me to pursue my own trek.
With virtually no traffic to fight this weekend morning, the great landfill that calls itself Los Angeles disappeared in my mirrors. I cruised north on Highway 14 past the windblown plains of Lancaster and Palmdale. Despite the early hour the temperature here was already high, and the day was threatening to be a scorcher.
Already the scenery was changing -- gone were the rolling hills and palm trees of Los Angeles -- replaced by a more barren landscape of dirt, rocks and pucker bushes. Turning on Highway 178 towards Death Valley's 3.3 million acres, streams of windblown white sand lay across the road, swept there from a dry lake by scorching winds blowing in from the east. I stop briefly to snap a few pictures, quickly returning to my Valkyrie, eager once again to be on the move.
Stopping, even briefly, brings a twinge of apprehension as fear sneaks into my mind of not being able to restart the bike.
I dash these thoughts quickly by reminding myself that this is a Honda, and it isn't about to let me down. A stab of the Valkyrie's start button and I'm underway once again.
Now, as the mercury climbs above 110, I'm grateful for my windproof leather jacket. Although I make it a point to never ride without proper safety gear, the thought of traveling through this blast furnace had me feeling a little apprehensive. Now I find that it's necessary to keep the searing wind from baking my skin, as I pull my jacket's zipper up to my chin and tug my gloves over its cuffs to keep out the fiery air.
It's impossible to ride this road without feeling sorry for those hapless individuals who paved this stretch of blacktop. Laying asphalt in Death Valley must surely be a task reserved for Hell's worst sinners.
After miles and miles of sterile, rugged landscape I eventually roll into the small town of Stovepipe Wells. On any other route its humble gas station, restaurant and trailer park would be passed over in favor of more hospitable fare. Out here it appears as an oasis, offering refuge for weary travelers. I seek shelter from the heat in shade offered by the restaurant's covered patio, where I enjoy some ice-cold beverages. Here I meet a group of elderly tourists from England on a day trip from their vacation in Las Vegas. They've come here for the same reasons that most people visit Death Valley -- to see an area known for its brutality and rugged beauty. Like so many others, they're also here for the "been there, done that" aspect of this trip. "Death Valley? Sure, me and the wife were there in '97. Say, have you ever safaried in Africa? Super wasn't it? How was your lion?"
I'm most interested in those who have chosen this area as their home. I ask the young waitress what possesses a person to live in this part of the world. She replies with a gruff "Dunno. As soon as I get some money together I'm moving to Vegas." Her tone suggests she's been asked this question more than a few times before.
Before returning to the road I pour some cold water into my helmet's liner. It provides a welcome respite against heat that has now climbed to 120 degrees. Further on, I reach the turnoff for Scotty's Castle, one of the area's more popular attractions and home to a storied past. Scotty was actually born Walter Scott in Kentucky in 1872. He moved to Nevada as a youth to join his brother on a cattle ranch but soon found himself drawn to Death Valley. After being discovered by a scout and traveling with Bill Cody's Wild West Show, he returned to the area to search for gold.
Many people of the time believe his only real
search was for investor's money, which Scott took in eagerly. He never found gold and claimed a series of unfortunate mishaps and setbacks were holding him back. One of Scott's unlucky investors traveled to Death Valley to see the alleged gold mine for himself. Instead of being furious with Scott for his treachery, he fell in love with the area, became good friends with Scott and spent a month there. Over the years Scott's new found friend and his wife made several visits there before they decided more hospitable accommodations were necessary, and together with Scott they built Scotty's Castle. Scott used the $2 million dollar home as a lure for other investors, claiming it was built with the riches acquired from his successful gold mine.
However, my curiosity to visit Scotty's Castle is overwhelmed by the heat, and I ignore the turn-off to this site, eager to get away from this searing place. More rocks and sand disappear into the Valkyrie's mirrors as I roll on the throttle. Despite the big Honda's size, its powerful torque and 100 horses whip it up to speed with surprising authority. Now, with several hundred miles still ahead of me I'm grateful for its speed. I also find its new windshield useful, protecting me from the desert's hot wind. However, I was unable to test Honda's claim of excellent waterproofing with their new Tourer series hard saddlebags on this trip. The locals at Stovepipe Wells say that it might rain here next year - maybe.
The rest of the journey is uneventful, except for countless stops for pictures of areas that look even less hospitable than ones I stopped for previously. It's interesting to note that during these photo stops nearly every passing vehicle stops to ask if I'm okay. People here are well aware that a simple mechanical breakdown in these conditions could turn life-threatening, and they're not about to turn their back on someone in trouble.
At Death Valley Junction I head south to Interstate 15 and the town of Baker. Here, a 100 foot neon thermometer, claiming to be the world's largest, announces the temperature at 115 degrees. Normally I'd be stifling in this heat, but after Death Valley it seems bearable. Still, with this constant baking temperature, relentless wind and bleak terrain I'm wondering if the sign shouldn't read "The world's largest rectal thermometer," as it does seem to be well and truly planted in the rectum of the world.
Gradually, L.A.'s thick smog reappears, and another hour later I'm sipping a cold beer pool-side at my beach-front apartment. Six hundred miles have passed under
my wheels today, and I'm amazed that such a place is so easily accessible within a day trip from L.A. In the morning you're hopping from one Starbuck's to the next, then at noon you're contemplating your own insignificance against the power of nature, followed by an ice-cold bevvy at poolside by evening. It is both a testament to the wonderfully varied terrain of California, and the wonderful ability of Honda's Valkyrie Tourer to really take you places. Death Valley? Been there, done that.