Getting our Lawrence of Arabia on in Southern California: Exploring the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area
Among the many things I still didn’t know about riding motorcycles is that you can get stuck riding downhill.
God only knows the physics that shift the enormous dunes around at California’s Imperial Sand Dunes Recreational Area (Glamis to you and me), but sometimes halfway down the vertigo-inducing slope of a big wall of sand, you hit silt, a substance with the consistency of baby powder. One second you’re taking a roller-coaster drop with heart and esophagus acting as needle and seat, next second your back tire’s sinking in like your chute just opened and you better get on the gas hard or you will sink. What the?
At Glamis, the rule isn’t “when in doubt gas it”; the rule is “there’s never any doubt that you should gas it.” Easier to say than do when you’re on top of a huge dune with a 360-degree panoramic view of most of the Imperial Valley. You don’t have to be all that high, really, since most of the valley is 200 feet below sea level, but it’s all relative: It looks like the top of Everest to me.
Sand, in case you’re not an off-road guy, is pretty much the bane of most dirtbikers. Silt is worse still, but there’s not quite so much of it about or people really wouldn’t try to ride off-road. Okay, some people would, because some people truly thrive on abuse – an idea that reoccurs to me every time I go off-roading. Some guys just aren’t having fun till everything’s going wrong and it starts to hail.
Anyway, sand is hard to ride in until you’ve done it a few times, and then it’s still hard. You have to keep the gas on and your weight back, hope you have a tire that’ll provide forward momentum, and learn not to micromanage: In sand, you can only offer the handlebars general guidance rather than specific directions. So it was interesting to try to fathom the attraction of riding in a place that’s one of the world’s biggest sandboxes outside the Sahara.
Usually what you find out with any off-beat activity when you ask why people do it is that it’s because their parents brought them out to do it when they were kids. If you grew up in Calexico or Brawley or El Centro, what were you going to do for fun? Nobody lived here till the early 1900s, when the Imperial Land Company lured in some settlers. By the 1920s, people were driving their Model Ts round on plank roads laid out across the sand.
In 1928, the Boulder Canyon Project Act passed Congress, and the All-American Canal and Hoover Dam were built, making the desert bloom and the population boom. Soon enough, crowds began gathering at the bottom of Oldsmobile Hill and Competition Hill to watch T-bucket roadsters and motorcycles race up it.
Oldsmobile Hill did look pretty frightening from the bottom, but my old XR400R grumbled up the lower whoops with ease in third gear; a quick downshift halfway up and it was no problem to churn all the way to the top thanks to my Craigslist $10 sandpaddle rear tire. Looking at the descent down the backside struck fear into my reptilian brainstem again, until my frontal lobe caught up and reminded it that this is sand, not dirt, and you can’t really achieve out-of-control downhill speed. Far as I know.
You can, however, find lots of other original ways to fall off. Being indecisive and rolling the gas off at the wrong time became my favorite. The night before our ride, in the Glamis Saloon, my pal Brad Googled up “Glamis deaths.” The list is long and creative. My new friend Leo once jumped into the canal on an ATV while teaching a kid to ride – not a good thing since the All-American holds the distinction, or once held it, of being the most deadly body of water in America. (Actually it’s the New Coachella Canal that borders Glamis on the west, and feeds into the New American.)
You used to be able to run onto the Union Pacific mainline, which borders the dunes to the east, and get hit by one of the trains that highballs through every 15 minutes (3:10 to Yuma). But by far the most popular method of mayhem is jumping off a dune into either a lot more, or much less, nothingness than you expected. “Slipfaces” I learned about years ago at Pismo Dunes with a Honda Pilot. At Glamis, there are 150-foot drops off some of the 300-foot dunes, and unless you’ve been riding there awhile – and the place is huge – one dune looks pretty much like any other. Fly off a big one like you’re in a GoPro commercial, and it can be a looong way to touchdown. Collisions with other vehicles are the other main thing that ruins people’s day.
The basic conundrum is you need to keep the gas on and a head of steam up to keep your front tire from knifing in and toppling over, but you also need to not go flying over the top of a dune in case there’s a) another nut like you on the other side (why you have a flag) or b) nothing. What you really want to do, then, is blast up dunes at an angle, hitting the crest of the sand wave at about 45 degrees or so. It looks really easy and is when you just commit and keep the gas on yeeeeehaaaa!
For a guy like me who craves structure, though, sometimes there are too many choices. The goal on a racetrack or mountain road or trail is to stay inside the lines. At Glamis, it’s more like skiing in really open terrain with the added option to go up as well as down. Left? Right? Up that dune or down that chute? Roll off gas to decide, go over bars… splooooshhh!
Luckily, none of my quite a few crashes hurt (at the time), since the sand is soft and all my beginner crashes were at low(ish) speed. The real pain was cumulative and came later, from picking the ol’ XR400 up repeatedly and kickstarting it again. Could be time for a little carburetor maintenance. You can do the dunes with knobbies, but swapping to the sandpaddle on my bike made a huge difference. And swapping onto my new friend John’s CRF450R with paddle rear and front sand tire is definitely the way to go. Though I fell off it a couple times, too.
What Don Canet famously said about rain tires applies equally well to sand ones: “They allow you to crash at a higher rate of speed.”
Anyway, riding at Glamis is like nothing else I’ve ever done on a motorcycle, and camping out there (we actually had Luv2Camp drag us out a trailer) isn’t a bad thing at all. Thanksgiving weekend at Glamis is legendary and probably an excellent thing to avoid.
On the three-day Martin Luther King weekend when we went in January, there were just enough people around, at a respectable distance, to make things interesting. Trash bag lanterns wafting in the desert stars. Cute little girls driving round in side-by-sides in Nazi helmets. High-dollar V-8 sand rails. Little moto dudes flying around on minis. Big campfires at night. Bring your old Christmas trees, they put out a lot of heat for about 20 seconds. Good, old-fashioned fun, really.