I should know better than to say yes when Brad says let’s go on an off-road adventure, but that weekend it was either Death Valley or start deconstructing 18 years worth of worldly possessions for an impending housing relocation. I still had the KTM 1190 Adventure in my garage, and how many times would those two things align? Also, Brad’s rides are less death-defying now that he’s paraplegic. How he rides his DR350, I know not. Nor how he walks, but he does both amazingly well, looking only a little like Mr. Natural sometimes if he’s had a cocktail.

Mr. Natural

Mr. Natural

From Orange County, Death Valley’s only about a 4.5-hour blast north, the weather was supposed to be sunny and 70-ish, my friend Jim was in, too, trucking his KTM EXC500 in from Santa Barbara, and Brad’s pal Big John on his XR650. I definitely didn’t want to do any gnarly single-track on the 522-pound (without bags) Adventure, and was assured that there’d be none of that – just jeep trails and fire roads. We’d be back at the Panamint Springs “Resort” by dark, supposedly, for a thick steak and a bottle of plonk. What could go wrong?

The main thing I dislike about off-road as it applies to SoCal is the need to load your bike in a truck, which guarantees you will be stuck in some ring of traffic hell either coming or going if not both. On the Adventure, you ride there. I threw my stuff in the big saddlebags and bailed out of town about 4:30am, saw the tank was empty and gassed up, rode about three miles, circled back to the casa to get my Crampbuster throttle deal, and was on the actual road by 5. The Santa Anas were blowing like crazy that morning, my landlord had left me a voicemail at 4:37am that I should batten down a loose garage door (Man, I’m happy to be moving…), but the wind barely bothered the KTM and I was there about five minutes early, bumping into Brad and pals at the Panamint gas station on a gorgeous, windless January morning.

Battle Of The Adventures: BMW vs. KTM + Video

Maybe we all have near-death experiences once or twice a week but just don’t know it? An oncoming truck jumps the median just after you’ve passed by. An errant javelin misses you by inches on your skateboard while you have your Dr. Dre Beats headphones on. My ex actually turned into a gas station to get a pack of Virginia Slims once, and the woman waiting at the light where she would’ve been was killed by a falling eucalyptus tree. Smoking saved her life.

How can you not love that face?

How can you not love that face?

I think the last time my life was in danger and I knew it, real-time, was the last time I went off-roading with Brad. It was 110 in the shade, but there wasn’t any shade. I’d sucked my Camelbak dry an hour ago and had run completely out of talent and energy. I got out, but just barely; one lone sun-blasted creosote bush provided just enough shade for me to cower under long enough to regain my manhood. That and a lovely sympathetic Australian lady enduro champ … but I digress … that was when Brad still had use of his legs. He’s been de-fanged, so to speak. As lousy an off-road rider as I am, I feel pretty good about being able to go anywhere a paraplegic can go on a motorcycle. And yet, somehow, you know it will always be an adventure when he’s around. Which is why I can’t say no.

He’s a salesman, and I should know better, but I appreciate a good pitch. Somehow the idea had been conveyed to me that ol’ Brad had done this ride many times and knew just where he was going. His sidekick Big John, who I’d been to Glamis with, can change a knobby with his teeth in 35 seconds with no lube, and he and his XR were turned out like the Afrika Korps, complete with a stack of maps.

Ladies and gentlemen, does this look anything like a man who doesn’t know where he’s going? (Though I give you it looks like a man who does not know where his rear preload adjuster is.)

Ladies and gentlemen, does this look anything like a man who doesn’t know where he’s going? (Though I give you it looks like a man who does not know where his rear preload adjuster is.)

When we stopped in the Death Valley office to get passes (it’s a National Park, for God’s sake), John showed me on the big topographic map on the wall just where we were going. All I had to do was shut up and ride. My only concern was deep sand or other gnarly conditions the KTM and its streetish tires weren’t really prepared for.

Titus Canyon’s the pink road; it’s really tailor made for big adventure bikes.

Titus Canyon’s the pink road; it’s really tailor made for big adventure bikes.

First, we blasted 60 miles on pavement to Beatty, Nevada, to gas up at a station that had lovely bbq aromas wafting from its food counter … but Colonel Brad kept us moving. No time to eat! The adventure was about to begin, as we hopped off the pavement and on the road to Titus Canyon. This was a wide, graded gravel road and perfect for the big KTM, but they still all left me in the dust on their knobbies. Fine. That actually left me out of their dust. Wow, what a beautiful place. I’d only ever been to the paved parts of the park.

Titus Canyon was carved out by an ancient river, and at one point grows so narrow, the whole road through is one-way, east to west.

Titus Canyon was carved out by an ancient river, and at one point grows so narrow, the whole road through is one-way, east to west.

It was an awesome ride, it really was, and a perfect venue for a big adventure bike like the, ahh, Adventure. If at first I was cautious of the beast on loose surfaces, I soon enough relaxed and let the bike do its thing. In “Off Road” mode, the rear only spins up a little out of tight corners (with thousand foot drops), and that 127-hp Twin is amazingly willing to putter happily along at 1500 rpm in 3rd or 4th gear, not to mention 2nd and sometimes 1st. Also, its ABS let me stab the brakes whenever I felt the need with no negative consequences. Basically, the bike’s electronics let me sit there in the seat and steer much like I ride on pavement – while going places you’d never get to see on an R1, including “the Racetrack,” where scientists only recently figured out what makes the rocks sitting there on the dry lake bed appear to be racing each other. Best of all, the 200-yard “silt bed” in the road Brad suddenly remembered he’d had a hard time getting through in his Jeep last time – and I should keep an eye out for – had been freshly bulldozed down to nice firm hardpack.

Hard to believe wild and distorted were ever associated with advertising.

Hard to believe wild and distorted were ever associated with advertising.

What fun. Let’s head back to Panamint for a fine piece of cow and a cold beer, lads. I’m famished. That sausage McMuffin was a long time ago … All we do is turn right at Teakettle Junction.

Teakettle Junction’s easy enough to recognize. Through that pass is southward and civilization.

Teakettle Junction’s easy enough to recognize. Through that pass is southward and civilization.

We must’ve gone 20 miles or so that direction when we stopped: Big John was pretty sure we should take the fork off to the left, Brad thought straight, Jim and I had no opinion as we were both under the impression this was a guided tour. (Part of this misguided thinking is due to the fact that Brad was Yamaha’s PR guy some years ago, and guided me on several flawlessly executed adventures including a ride in a Huey chopper into Circuito Catalunya, etc. I cling to that version of him.)

Say, it gets chilly up here quickish in January when the sun goes down, doesn’t it?

Say, it gets chilly up here quickish in January when the sun goes down, doesn’t it?

We finally agreed to stay on what seemed like the main road with the most tire tracks, but then it split again, and the way that looked like the right direction had almost no tire tracks. Hmmm. I actually sent Jimmy on his EXC down to reconnoiter while Brad and Big J hung back and looked at the map again the way dogs watch TV. Jim returned and reported that the road was getting no worse or skinnier and seemed to be descending. I asked Brad didn’t he remember the way he’d gone last time, seeing as how he’d just recently recalled the part about the silt bed? Oh, he says, this is where we turned around last time.

Too bad the Cal-Mer mine isn’t on the map. Too bad with all the other signs in the park, there isn’t one to tell you which road is Hunter Mountain, or maybe an arrow that says Panamint Springs this way!

Too bad the Cal-Mer mine isn’t on the map. Too bad with all the other signs in the park, there isn’t one to tell you which road is Hunter Mountain, or maybe an arrow that says Panamint Springs this way!

But after looking at the map a bit more in the growing dark and cold, B-rad was positive, POSITIVE!, that we needed to take the road off to the right. Well, if you’re positive then how can the rest of us argue? I am ready for my steak but will settle for a cold rice ball and a hot shower now that it’s dark and cold. I was damn glad I’d packed two pounds of trail mix just in case, and we had plenty of water. What some of us didn’t have plenty of was gas. Off we went to the right, on a winding dirt mountain road. Luckily, the KTM Adventure has a headlight that puts the typical little dual-sport’s flickering candle to shame, and luckily I had my trusty Kanetsu electric vest ready to switch on, though I was working hard enough, for now, not to need it.

The road kept twisting its way up as the thermometer on the KTM kept descending into the 40s. I came around one uphill corner to illuminate Jimbo standing next to his fallen EXC atop a patch of icy snow covering the road (Jim says frozen spring). There was nothing for me to do but stop, and I really did experience that sinking feeling when I stuck my toes down and felt them sink into the mud along with my tires. Finally, I can flat-foot this thing. Jimmy picked up his 260-pound bike and took right off again. I closed my eyes and dumped the clutch on my 520-pound one and, praise Jesus, the TC did its thing, the tire found traction, and we motored right out of the muck. (I would like to go back and try it again sometime with TC switched off. I don’t think I would’ve made it. These are my thoughts on that if you’re still awake.)

Surprisingly good in mud and snow as well as rocks and dirt.

Surprisingly good in mud and snow as well as rocks and dirt.

So, we kept going another, I dunno, five miles, but the road just kept going up and now there were lots of mud puddles in the road and snow on both sides. Brad got stuck in one puddle on his DR and I thought I’d have to help him get out, but he made it on his own no problem. Only then did I remember the guy is in fact handicapped, and if he did fall off or whatever, we might have a helluva situation on our hands. Hell, if any of us fell and got hurt, really … (and in fact, Brad was the only one of us who didn’t have an unplanned dismount). The kids were tired, the KTM said the temperature was in the 30s… and we had no clue if we were heading in the right direction or into the Yukon. About then Big John got one bar on his phone and let out a squeal of anguish. We are TOTALLY going the wrong way…

I think we turned right at South Pass instead of going straight? But there are a lot more roads on the ground than on this map.

I think we turned right at South Pass instead of going straight? But there are a lot more roads on the ground than on this map.

Jim, bless his heart, proposed that the safe thing to do would be retrace our route, 50 or 60 miles back, to Teakettle and from there to Ubehebe Crater, where we’d last seen pavement. At least we’d be a little lower and the temperature would be a little higher, and from there maybe we’d have enough gas for one bike to make it back to Panamint – 60 miles back down the paved road – to bring Brad’s Jeep and trailer back to the Crater.

Which is exactly what we did. We filled the Adventure, whose 6.1-gallon tank was blinking reserve by the time we made it back to the Crater, with the gas from the other bikes. Its odometer said we’d travelled 167 miles since Beatty. I volunteered to ride it back to Panamint mostly because I wanted to turn on my electric vest. After all that rocky dirt, it was as happy as I was to be back on smooth pavement. Ahhhh … it was actually a really pleasant ride, and I watched the digital thermometer climb as we descended back into Panamint Valley. The most dangerous part of the whole deal was trying to stay awake driving the Jeep back up. Even with the windows down and stereo blasting, I did find myself barreling along the left shoulder at one point like something straight out of a Chevy Chase Vacation movie. I didn’t see more than a couple of cars in the whole 60 miles, but that could’ve been a tragic ending. How could I stop and nap knowing my people were freezing?

It was around 4am when we all made it back to the Panamint Springs Resort and fell immediately unconscious. The next morning, we tore into the breakfast buffet, and I asked a person who works there if there are any springs, to which she replied, “Yes, we have all four seasons.” I settled for a nice hot shower.

Okay. Well, I can only blame myself. I had a perfectly good zumo 550 in my car’s glovebox, and the KTM has a power outlet right there in the cockpit. Jimmy learned there are GPS apps that work without cell reception. We all learned they don’t call it Death Valley for nothing. I didn’t feel like we were ever quite in touch with the grim reaper, but if we’d had a problem and gotten stuck up there at 6000 feet, we would’ve been in for an extremely chilly night and an unpleasant dog pile. Then again, why not blame The Man like I usually do? All the signs up there – it’s a National Park! – and not a single one to tell you which way back to Highway 190? Remind me to fire off a strong email to Senator Pelosi.

On the positive side, I learned there’s tremendous nutritional value in trail mix – nuts and raisins and M&Ms. I was ready for it in my Aerostich and electric vest – and I very nearly made 167 miles of dirt road without toppling over on the Adventure once. I waited for maximum witnesses to fall off; I was trying to get to the right side of the road to let two oncoming vehicles pass in a deep gravelly section just as we were getting back to Teakettle, and swapped ends about four times before dismounting right in their headlights.

Oooooh… is your friend okay?

YES I’M OKAY!

Anyway, what a fantastic motorcycle. It had me back home by 1pm, a gorgeous ride on a perfect Sunday; I even did a little trainspotting in Cajon Pass. Now that it’s been a couple of weeks, I can’t wait to see what Brad comes up with next. It’s always an adventure.

There needs to be a Special Olympics for motorcycles.

There needs to be a Special Olympics for motorcycles.

 

  • Old MOron

    Oh, man! I have a friend kind of like Brad. He’s lead me more than once on off-road adventures that ended long after dark, with empty gas tanks and empty stomachs. Those kind of adventures are great!

  • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

    Good to see B-Rad is out there ripping it up! Can’t keep a good man down.

  • Goose

    Great stuff John. I used to go to Death Valley regularly, I’ve had some great times there. Not as crazy as this adventure but some good times. Too bad the the NPS is trying to turn the place into Disneyland.

    Next time see if Brad is up for turning north instead of following the road from Scotty’s to Ubehebe Crater. Wonderful places, even the hot spring you were looking for.

    • http://www.hatchillustrations.com/ Jim Hatch

      Johnny really stepped up volunteering to get the truck, I am still grateful. I had on only normal dirt riding gear and was quite frozen. A memory for the ages.

    • john burns

      thanks for the tip. I think we need to go back just to get unlost.

  • SRMark

    That’s the idea of an Adventure. Step outside that comfort zone and see if you return.

  • Craig Hoffman

    Fantastic story! I know the blend of terror and satisfaction that comes from a ride like this. If you ever get a chance, take that big KTM to Ouray, CO and ride Engineer Pass. It would be doable, and you will not be disappointed.

    For the big ADV bike worthy Ouray portion, scroll to the 10 minute mark of this video, or watch the whole thing. It was an epic day indeed!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX9W373U_eE

    Stock KTM dirt bike headlights are really feeble. A couple of aroused fireflies put out more light than my ‘Berg 450’s headlight does.

    • john burns

      I remember riding some roads that look a lot like that one around Ouray on one of the first oilhead GSs. It was a great time till it wound up upside down in Animas (?) Creek right outside Durango.

      • David

        Weren’t you riding a ’96 GS in that weird light green color? It was around the 4th of July. I waved to you going the other way in Colorado National Monument on my red ’95 GS.

        • john burns

          good memory. I hope I waved back.

          • David

            You did.

  • Vrooom

    Once spent a year riding without ever putting a mile on an a freeway (unless to cross a river at the only crossing), and my friend and I took off on a 9 day trip. We had to cross the Rogue River in Oregon west of I-5, and saw a dirt road on the map that looked like it had a bridge. We stopped in a small town, and got the wrong directions. We were on V-Stroms, loaded with camping gear, and the directions had us on single track for 25 miles. It was hell, my buddy tipped over too many times to count. I actually kissed the dirt road when the trail went down a steep embankment and onto the road we were actually supposed to be on about 3 AM. I had considered calling 911 just a few minutes earlier…

  • TC

    I’m glad you made it out, John, I would have missed your stories. I live out in Riverside County, and read about unprepared people, mostly in cars, getting lost in the desert near Joshua Tree and 29 Palms and being found dead days later. Personally, I always take my own GPS and route maps, not matter how reassuring the “guide” sounds.

  • http://superhunky.com/ MSCUDDY

    I don’t get it, your buddy is a paraplegic, and he can walk, and ride? What about the dreaded catheter, and that..er…nevermind. Anyway, great story, and I’d really like to know how a paraplegic can do that stuff? Last time I was in Death Valley, I got stuck under my ’83 XL600 for about an hour, felt like Rooster Cogburn. TTFN JB

    • Buzz

      Cuddly! You’re back.

  • Chris Kallfelz

    John, unless my eyes deceive me, glancing at that map it would appear you took a bankers holiday in DEATH (their caps, not mine).

    As enticing as that sounds, well, it does say DEATH, John…

    Not Hematoma Gulch, not Humiliation Pass, they just don’t leave much for the imagination, you know what I’m saying?

    • john burns

      I like to assume it is named after somebody. Jedediah Death or somebody…

      • Chris Kallfelz

        You know? I always admired that glass-half-full side of you…

      • Goose

        John, IIRC the story is some people on the way to California (brilliantly) crossed the valley in summer. After going through 8 or 10 kinds of hell, imagine way over 100 degrees, out of water, people and animals dieing of thirst, moving across that big valley at 2 or 3 MPH, all the while looking across the valley and seeing Telescope Peak with snow on it. Anyway, as the guy was going over what is now Towne Pass he supposedly said “Good Bye Death Valley” and the name stuck.

        BTW Chris, if you like Death Valley you’ll love the Funeral Mountains that form the east side of Death Valley.

  • Backroad Bob

    The
    greatest (six times in the ’80s and ’90s) trans-continental (US) off pavement traveler Sydney Dickson
    once told me he doesn’t go on adventures, he goes on planned rides. He
    said adventures imply a lack of planning. I didn’t argue.

  • Buzz

    I did the street portion on my Ducati ST4 many moons ago. Ancient riverbed? Climate must have changed and stuff!