Third Time Lucky

Story by Lisa Morris// Photos by Jason Spafford
October 17 2018

Due to a recurring breakdown, it took years to finally get to their destination.

“I’m done. Get. Me. Out. Of. Here.” Naively, I thought you had to see it to believe it. An afternoon on the Strip in Las Vegas was about all I could handle. Neither of us could depart the desert metropolis fast enough. The resort city was an ongoing explosion of the gaudy and loud, the 24/7 city blowing itself to bits and my mind in the process. Not exactly city people, we wanted to trade slots of fun for slot canyons, and artificial lighting on those labyrinthine casino floors for a bewitching night sky whose ceiling twinkles like studded diamonds. Just west of the trillion-dollar bling lay Death Valley – forged by tectonic plates, shaped by the wind and sun-scorched, vast canyons mingled with epic mountains. To my mind, the jackpot. I couldn’t think of a better risk-taking adult playground compared to rolling dice until sunrise.

At full tilt, we merged at what I thought was dangerous speed onto Highway 95 and into the slipstream of racing vehicles. The cars fused into one entity, like a shoal of fish. All I heard was the whoosh of rubber on asphalt. Like a superorganism. Spend too much time or moolah in Vegas and this superorganism will subsume you.

Three hours from Vegas, we arrived at Emigrant Campground, an intimate little snuggery situated 34 km from the park boundary at Panamint Springs and 16 km south of Stovepipe Wells. We set up home in the desert of extremes.

Titus Canyon, Nevada

Giant Statues in Titus Canyon NevadaPacking up our steeds the following morning before temperatures got silly, we loaded all the water we could carry from the campground’s spigot. As towns for the boom-and-bust scenario go, Leadfield, California, was located on Titus Canyon Road, just west of Beatty, Nevada. The adventurous backcountry road is a legacy of Leadfield, which once thrived thanks to its mining but what is now a ghost town. Bright and early saw us back on the bitumen as we jumped onto Hwy 374, our wheels humming to a song of a 43 km one-way route through Titus Canyon, which started a few kilometres east of the Death Valley National Park boundary. Our plan was to stop for gas and a resupply in Stovepipe Wells, inside the park.

Despite the vultures searching for carrion overhead, plunging into Death Valley for the second time gave me the confidence needed to get out there and kill it. As canyons go, Titus lived up to its Greek meaning: “of the giants.” Its swath of mountains possessed an endless supply of ruggedness, leading us on a serpentine stony trail – some of it loose – meandering through vivid rock formations, adorned with desert flora and petroglyphs. A spectacular finale ensued as the canyon narrowed to a winding finish at the western end. Back with a vengeance, bring it on Death Valley.

Here We Go Again

Travelling Near Titus Canyon NevadaNext stop: the Racetrack. It seemed like as good a time as any to attempt it again. What happened next is a paver short of a patio, so it bears being described. We’re story animals after all, where individual tales sometimes piece together human existence into a unified whole. Exactly two years ago, we were forced to leave Death Valley due to a failing stator on Jason’s motorcycle. Jason was gutted by never making it to the Racetrack; we were so geared up
to take her on again.

“Oh, you’re kidding me! No. You’ve got to be joking.” Jason spluttered in sheer disbelief on the roadside. We were not even 2 km outside of Titus Canyon. “What’s up?” Oh, don’t tell me it’s the stator, I thought as I parked my stare on Jason. He was as serious and sober as a judge, so I took a breath and put a firm lid on my high spirits at having just conquered the canyon. Aesthetic rejoicing, quiet appreciation and off-road euphoria would have to wait. Not for the first time, I felt a familiar shiver of dislike for the F800GS. Or, just Jason’s. It was beginning to behave like a cheap umbrella.

“That’s the second bloody stator that’s gone in two years,” a frustrated Jason said. Well, at least you’re not bitter, I mused, refraining to verbalize the nearest off-the-shelf remark. Alas, the realization kicked in as the bike flatly refused to start. The irony was almost comical, save for the exquisite timing. In derision, the machine gurgled to a halt and sat there radiating sadness. “I think the universe is trying to tell us something, Lisa – it doesn’t want us to go to the Racetrack.” Death Valley had claimed Jason’s stator a second time, but at least we’d live to die another day. I guess that was the way of it: some riders get to roll on, the vultures keep circling and it’s crucial that venturing into Death Valley isn’t to be taken lightly.

Alabama Hills, Eastern California

Racing Through Alabama HillsA surge of power from the portable battery pack enabled Jason to scoot to the nearest big town with me: Lone Pine, California, where the washing machine, hot water and a fresh change of clothes became my new objects of desire. Parts could be shipped overnight and, thanks to Dave Mull, installed at the back of NAPA – his auto-parts store. Might as well camp just up the road in the Alabama Hills, a range of jumbled rock formations and hills near Mount Whitney on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada.

The morning had finally settled into a beautiful afternoon, high clouds rolling across the big blue sky. The muted orange volcanic rock, large boulders and dozens of natural arches make it a popular movie set location, big scenes from Iron Man and Django Unchained included. My mind was arrested, spellbound as it burrowed deep to understand the allure of this beguiling place straight out of a spaghetti western. Best of all? It was BLM (Bureau Land Management) – free, public camping.

Finally, the Racetrack

Back on the same ribbon of pavement the next day, we re-entered Death Valley. Pleasingly, we passed a meteor crater, narrow canyons, dunes and the odd Joshua tree. There was practically no sign of human life out here – not until we embarked on another 45 km bobbled ride of loose rocks, but mostly back-jarring and skull-shaking washboard. At least the temperature was smack dab perfect at around 26 C.

“Please, Lisa, just promise me you’ll stay in second gear once we head down this trail, and give it the tiniest amount to stay positive when it feels twitchy,” Jason pleaded. I knew he was referring to both the gas and my temperament, which didn’t take a lot to unravel. “Basically, you just need to suck it up. I can’t ride your bike for you” was his pragmatic conclusion. Looking back, I think it’s the reason why you never hear the phrase “male intuition.”

Mr. Jangles, we’re up! But not you, sweetie, you’re going down. Deflating the DR650’s tires made the world of difference. I knew categorically, more by feel and sixth sense than by appearance, my bike imparted to the sandy gravel itself a sense of sureness and a generosity of spirit. He exuded poise as much as purpose that took me in, urging to keep him steady in the loose stuff.

At Teakettle Junction, we took a breather from the concentrated corrugations – blood pulsating in my ears – before riding west over more sharp ridges and aggravating grooves. Third time lucky, as they say. Meaningless patter aside, it’s “a curious dry lake, almost perfectly oval in shape,” as Phil Townsend Hanna described the playa. Five kilometres long, ringed by mountains and flat as a pancake. The dried-up lakebed does look like a racetrack. Undeniably though, it’s out of place, even in this geologically jaw-dropping park.

Magic Stones?

The site is famous for the rocks that tumble down the mountainside, land on the playa and then somehow “race” around. They actually “move” by themselves across the desert, marking their journey with tracks and befuddling scientists for decades. But for me, they didn’t budge an inch. Still, the sun-baked cracked floor felt warm and ancient underfoot. I came across rocks ranging from the size of a lemon to a 700-pounder (scientists dubbed her “Karen”). Most of the rocks leave a track scored in the dirt, like a snail trail etched in the earth. Some are straight and short, while other tracks go the length of a football field and curve or zigzag off at odd angles. Surely no magic’s involved, but if they were removed from the lakebed, as some increasingly are by pebble-brained plunderers, then to my reckoning, all magic is lost forever.

Staring down at these “slithering stones,” I was split between two realities where logic only prevails:

(i) these rocks look as if they’ve sailed of their own volition across the desert floor, and yet (ii) rocks can’t make themselves move. Foremost, the mystery is still embedded in an astonishing fact: no one’s actually seen them advance! Unsubstantiated theories around magnetism, energy fields and aliens erred on the farcical. A blend of curious joy toward the stones piqued my interest.

Cue Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University, and his team that presented their findings in 2011. “Basically, a slab of ice forms around a rock, and the liquid level changes so that the rock gets floated out of the mud,” he explained. “It’s a small floating ice sheet which happens to have a keel facing down that can dig a trail in the soft mud.” The truth is usually simple; that got my buy-in.

The official answer given to the public, though, states that in 2014, cousins James and Richard Norris unearthed a similar truth behind the bizarre marks. With sufficient rainfall, the southern end becomes a shallow lake. During winter, the lake surface freezes into a floating sheet of ice, rooting the rocks. The sun causes the ice sheets to break up; steady breezes catch the floating ice sheets, pushing them along with their embedded rocks. Eventually, the ice melts and the water evaporates, leaving the rocks relocated. That is, until the next event – maybe years later – moves them again.

Was the bone-rattling ride to the Racetrack and sailing stones worth it? I think so – even if Jason’s side-stand snapped clean off on our way out. Death Valley is a killer on your bike. Or…just Jason’s! Yes, what the rocks are doing on their own little playa over millennia is fascinating.

Back at camp, clusters of dust from the desert erupted in a fine spray that pirouetted around us as we sat watching the sun melt into the mountains. Overcome with weariness, thanks to an impromptu party with some great guys and a travelling nurse we met, sleep crept through my veins like anaesthetic. Tired, I sank like a stone into a deep slumber.

Eureka Valley Sand Dunes

As the first pale fingers of light pried my eyes open, we wended over 25 km of good gravel in the Eureka Valley and descended on the Eureka Dunes, sparkling on the horizon. Rising to around 215 metres, it’s one of the highest dune fields in North America, with dry camping and concrete picnic tables located at the sandy bottom. Unusually, they’re also known as “singing dunes.” At certain times when the wind’s just right, they produce a high-pitched whistling sound.
While no soothing tunes emanated from the dunes for us, they whispered softly as the breeze whipped the sand around our feet. Magnesium white in the morning sun, they later take on a golden glow that intensifies as the sun sails westward on its afternoon journey. With every curve and striation on the sand burnished red by the setting sun, it’s perhaps the last place I stood that completely bowled me over.

My heart thumped, my skin tingled, and a dawning sense of paralysis slowed my feet upon each barefoot climb up the steep slopes. Keep pushing, Morris! The thigh-burning throb will be worth it as I withdrew into my own jagged thoughts. Hot and breathless, each heaving effort led us to magnificently sharp ridge lines split perfectly by the stark shadow; by daylight, twilight and moonlight.

Wow, it was stunning stomping ground in the remote desert wilderness. And just like the valley in which they reside, they offered a raw, grounding purity you can turn to for replenishment. In the very dreamy and earthly locale in which I now found myself –seeing is believing.

Check out the continuing travels of Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford at twowheelednomad.com and jasonspaffordphotography.com.

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