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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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…
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.