I have ridden many places in my life where motorcycle travel was inhospitable. Certainly not for the weak of heart or the weekend rider. It is a challenge accepted by the biker to get to the sunny place, the curvy place, the better place. Parts of Central America, Downtown Manhattan, Tijuana, the Jersey turnpike… I must say, that in all my travels in Europe and North and South America and in all 50 states, I’ve never ridden through a dessert. Until now. In this third segment of Ms. Mandy and my adventure out west we had a final destination of Las Vegas, which was relatively uneventful after arrival there, but it was just our point B airport. Vegas is Vegas. But getting there, well, that’s another story.
We had left Yosemite National Park on the 3rd day of January and gave ourselves 2 days to get to Vegas, which seemed easy given the 500 miles separating these two places. One in Cali and one in Nevada. Easy right? Not so much! Exiting Yosemite Park was quite a chore given the road closures and higher peak snowfall. We found a clear exit along the “Wawona Road”, though a place called “Fish Camp”. It was an old ramshackle hunting and fishing town on the edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains outside the National Park. The road was scarcely more than a badly paved cow path, but at least it was clear of snow. In passing through the camps roughly built into mountainsides, I couldn’t help but notice that all the lakes and ponds were frozen solid and I saw more snowmobiles than cars parked at camps. Get me out of here! We’d be stranded the winter and have to take up jobs splitting wood or skinning fish at the market. Throttle UP! I knew the farther south we made it and the farther DOWN we went in elevation, the less the bad weather would be. We did stop at a general store for gas and a Pepsi and the old ladies behind the counter reveled in our chosen transportation. “Haven’t seen a motorcycle in a month” they exclaimed. “You better high tail it outta here. 18 inches expected this weekend”. CHECK PLEASE!
We made it out. We wound down through “Yosemite Forks” and “Mariposa Grove” and didn’t let up until we got to “Indian Springs” on Rt. 41 where the weather turned and we caught our breath. The Donner Party fate more than once crossing our minds, but not our lips. Once near Fresno, despite the 40 degree temps I felt we had made it out of the danger zone. We were below 5,000 feet, we were heading south and it was California. We declined a thousand feet every half hour. Warmth was before us. We got on state route 99 to Bakersfield, a real 2 lane road which we hadn’t seen in days. Trucks, traffic, potholes, assholes in minivans, thank God!
We actually stopped at a Starbucks for Chai tea, just to soak in the 50 degree sun for lunch and revel in the civilization. At least we weren’t going to freeze to death or be eaten by grizzlies or wolves now. We jumped on Rt. 58 to Barstow and hammered down, pressing the bikes’ limits. I accepted the fact I’d get a speeding ticket, usually not one to press my luck. This was different. I’ll take one for the team in the advancement of our goals. The start of the day was slow coming through the park and I had to make us time. I’ll pay the ticket. Besides, it’s a rental. How fast could it go? Pretty fast it turns out! The closer I got to no-mans land away from the cities, the faster the traffic flowed. If traffic went 50, I went 60. If it went 70, I went 80. The problem becomes, that upon nearing the edge of California in its south-eastern quadrant, no one cares if you speed. There’s nothing there. Just dessert and Nevada on the horizon. And speed we did. I gave new meaning to a ‘cracked-throttle’.
My plan was to make it to somewhere outside Vegas in 1 day and get a cheap hotel and saunter into Sin City for breakfast. We were told there was a cool town called Boulder City, just south of Vegas by an hour that was western style, cheap and down home. That was our goal. A good 500 mile day, but I did not count on 1 unexpected factor. The daunting task of passing through the Mojave Desert. It’s a national preserve and actually only a few hundred miles long where we were crossing it at its north most border. What I did not count on was the time it took me to get to its beginning. I hoped to pass through it before dark but this was not to be. Despite our best efforts, the trips challenges were wearing on us. I could see the fatigue in Ms. Mandy’s face. She was pressed to present me with a smile at gas stops. I myself felt fatigued and doubted the night riding would be easy to get past the dessert and into a civilized city. When you start to doubt yourself, you’re done. I was.
We hit a 1 horse town called Beacon Station right before we entered the dessert area. It had exactly 1 thing in it. A beat up Shell station. Well, no choices there. We gassed up and hit the throttle. I knew it was close to dusk and needed to wring every mile I could out of the daylight. We were warned that the dessert was an unforgiving place, that while warm in the day, even in January (it was 60’s) it does not hold heat at night and quickly cools down to freezing once dark. There was a stretch on Rt. 15 where I had the throttle cracked on the 107 inch mill for a full hour. I could see the gas gauge plummet, as was the temperature. Heads down, we raced across the flat pavement at triple digits, bizarre dessert landscape whizzing by on both sides. A vast wasteland of dunes and sagebrush. Occasional great clouds of dusty sand kicked up in the distance and stretched for miles parallel to us. We later learned that these were Baja buggies tearing up the sand dunes and racing its stretches. Several times I could see someone gaining on us in the side view mirror. I’d actually lay the back of my hand on the badly vibrating mirror to steady the image, maybe a state trooper? It never was. I clicked a picture having to slow down near an exit at Baker, CA, still travelling a healthy 96 or 97 mph, a minivan whizzed by me on the left, easily running 115. Who makes such a minivan, I know not. But what I do know is, that it passed me like I was standing still. I’ve got the photo to prove it.
This was the only portion of our 2 week trip where Ms. Mandy tucked her head down below my back. I could feet it. No cheerful smile over my shoulder. I knew why. The sand. It creeped in everywhere. It was undaunted. Neckerchiefs, cinched gloves, leathers zippered to our throats, goggles, it still got in. It was an inescapable foe. The harder I ran the more I realized I would fail my goal of the day. This was why we rarely made reservations. The pressure of HAVING to get to a specific destination with unknown obstacles. That day’s obstacle was a 47,877 square mile sandpit, that we just happened to be in the middle of and it was just about to get dark. We weathered on through the Mojave. The last straw was the light that came on on my dash. I’d seen it before but it wasn’t a gas warning. I was careful to fill up every chance I could. It was a ‘low temp’ warning. Telling me the ambient temps around us were headed below freezing. Logically, any road surfaces that were wet would be frozen. My brilliant trump card was knowing that it hadn’t rained there in 15 months. There was NO water on the road, not a drop. But this was no comfort against the freezing night air and blistering sand. The electric gear did well, but wind howled and the sand blew and every man has his breaking point. Mine was a shitty little exit that I don’t even know its name. All I know is that it had a shitty little hotel at the end of the shitty little ramp. The kind where the creepy owners kill you in your sleep and make soup from your bones. Who would ever know? A chance I’d take. My girl was tired. I was tired. The bike certainly was tired. So we stopped and paid for a room. We were told by the clerk the only reason the hotel is there was for the ‘4 wheeler’ people who park their trucks and access the dune riding in the area and spend the night at the hotel. We could hear their machines in the dark distance and occasionally see bright LED lights shining skyward from the whining buggies and side by sides jumping the dunes. There was actually a restaurant so we ate bad food happily and went straight to bed. The morning produced a welcome bright sun and warmth by 40 higher degrees within an hour.
We drank copious amounts of free coffee, cup after cup. We ate a continental breakfast looking out our window of our first real view of the dessert. I snapped a pic. Nothing. Sage. Sand. More sand on hills and more sand in valleys. Like the ocean we enjoyed the week before, which one more formidable, I do not know? I simply desired to pass them both by. And pass we did. We lashed gear down and fired the bike to life. It ran great. Like a racehorse ready for the 2nd run. It seems an oddly torturous experience in retrospect. I believe that at the time, we both enjoyed it. It was a challenge. It was new to us. Dessert! Would I want to commute every day through that harsh environment? Hell no. Would I do it again. Hell yes. Who wants to go?
Remember, ride hard, ride safe, and in the end make sure you ride home. –Irish