Due to a recurring breakdown, it took years to finally get to their destination.
Story by Lisa Morris
Photos by Jason Spafford
“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
Packing 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
Next 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
A 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…