Yea, Though I Walk Through the Valley of Death
I go to the desert to cleanse my soul. It may be some ancient affinity. (Past life theory explains a felt experience that many of us have, without being metaphysically convincing to me at all.) Whatever the reason, I find the desert soothing. There is something about being in a place where survival is not easy or a given. I also like to be in a place where the bones of the Earth’s crust are not too covered over with vegetation or even soil. I feel close to her then.
Things come scouring off of me out in the Mojave. I rolled the old Yamahootie Scootie down the Eastern Sierra, late in the day coming to camp in the municipal campground in Big Pine on Friday. Interactions at Sierra Friends Center zing around in my head as I hunt for possibilities, but I have traveled over and over these mental roads, and find no new turn offs or revelations for now.
It is too late in the day to try the desert road to Saline Hot Springs. I’m not on a dual sport motorcycle, I don’t have auxiliary lighting, and I’ve already rolled too many miles to try it. I did try the paved road out to the desert before turning back, but the little desert owls next to the road turned me around, one after another starting up and fluttering in the headlight. I don’t know which way they will go or which way to swerve, since swerving to avoid wildlife is a good way to crash. I run over a ground squirrel that can’t decide which way to go, and then one of the owls hits me in the shoulder. I decide to turn back for the municipal campground before something really bad happens. Too late for the squirrel.
The next day I cover 102 miles of desert dirt road. Initially, I’m heading to Saline Hot Spring. Twelve miles in, I’m in a low place where the road is winding through steep walls. In a left hand turn, a jeep suddenly rounds the bend ahead, traveling at high speed. I see it very clearly all in a moment: huge winch on the front bumper, two giant coolers strapped down on the roof rack, green paint covered with dust. What really gets my attention, however, is that the jeep is pulling a trailer, and though the jeep is all hooked up, heading down the middle of the one lane road, the trailer is totally broken loose, and jackknifing its way straight towards me. I am hard on both brakes, and squeeze up against the canyon wall where there are big rocks sitting in deep stand. The jeep also slows, and the wheels of the trailer hook up just before it creams me. The trailer leaps into line behind the jeep, and the rig blows past me, trailing a cloud of dust. I put the side stand down on a rock, and shut off the motor. Pacing it off, it is three paces from the front wheel of the Yamaha to the deep crescent shaped furrow dug by the trailer tires as it swung in behind the jeep. I don’t smoke any more, so I just take a long drink from my Camelback and pee on a little scrub plant. (I always pee on plants in the desert. I imagine that they really appreciate the moisture and nitrogen.) I notice that my hands shake more than usual, and that my heart beat is a little more irregular than usual. It is so quiet here when no motors run!
Thirty miles down this road, on the Seca II (XJ600), I glance in the rearview mirror reflexively. My little wood and canvas chair is waving at me. Why isn’t it stowed? Always willing to take a break on a grueling washboard road, I stop at the top of a rise (there’s no shade for miles), and check my load. My ancient tent and ground cloth have gone AWOL!
I backtrack. And backtrack. And backtrack. I can go a little faster, because I know where the deep sand is now. I don’t mind rolling my old street machine on these bad roads, because it is so familiar to me after owning the same bike for more than a decade. It’s not a special dual sport motorcycle made for any kind of terrain. “Specialization” is one of the traps of the consumer society. That’s why everyone has twenty pair of shoes—we need different shoes (we think) for different activities and occasions. We can’t just cycle in a t-shirt; we need a cycling jersey. It won’t do to just have one kind of kayak—we need specific types for different bodies of water.
My old friend Richard Graham (pronounced "Graim") convinced me that “all motorcycles are single track vehicles.” He comes from the era when a high pipe and knobby tires went on “scramblers” while the exact same motorbike with street tires and low exhausts was the highway model. (Possibly different handlebars and gearing too.) He motocrossed his FJ1200 Yamaha just to prove the point. My little Seca II is descended of that FJ1200, with half the displacement, a steel cradle frame, single disc brake, bias ply street tires that last forever, and a relatively upright riding position. It is considered an entry-level machine, but I’ve put upwards of 80,000 miles on this motor now, and it has kicked the hell out of every BMW I ever owned previously for simple appliance-like reliability. It's small enough to ride off road, to pick up when it falls over, and to keep me in check with the Highway Poltroons.
Nine miles back, I find my old North Face tent in the road. I reflect on how long I have had this tent (sixteen years, by my calculation!). I should probably seal the seams again, but it is in perfectly good shape after many trips, and all kinds of weather. I suppose a newer tent would have some cool features my old tent doesn’t have, but ignorance is bliss. Besides, there is the issue of familiarity (same root as family). I can set up this tent in the dark at the end of a 600-mile day on the motorbike or twenty miles backpacking in the dark in a stiff wind.
I’ve backtracked so far that I decide, “Hang Saline Hot Springs—it’s too hot for soaking anyway. I’ll check out Scotty’s Castle.” I’ve been to Death Valley many times, but never to Scotty’s Castle. I’m curious, and it seems like it’s on the way towards Las Vegas where I will stay with Friends. Then the pavement ends again…
The dirt road I’m on now is wide and fairly well groomed. It has some gnarly washboard. And it has some deep sand. Now, deep sand is the only thing that really scares me off road. From reading the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook, however, I have the impression that even a purpose-built dual-sport motorcycle, if carrying luggage, will have difficulty in deep sand. I have read many accounts of people motorcycling in these conditions where frequent spills are the order of the day. What is pernicious about the situation I’m in is that a) the road looks the same whether it is fairly firm, allowing 35-45 miles per hour, or if it is deep sand, necessitating much slower rates of speed. Higher speed smoothes out the washboard like magic. So, I bomb along blithely through the desert landscape, and then suddenly the motorcycle starts flopping about like a landed fish as the front wheel tries to tuck in the deep sand. Slowing down exacerbates the flopping exponentially, so the only thing to do is gas it. Cracking open the throttle when all signs indicate that a crash is immanent is counter-intuitive, to put it mildly, but it is the right thing to do. The ground firms up eventually…
b) is that Richard isn’t with me. Nor is Aaron, Abbott, Issa, Amy, Kristina, Nicola, Brian, Pete, Jeremy, Gabriel, or any other motorcycling buddy of mine, except Eddy Bear. Eddy Bear no longer has a corporal body, however, and so is of limited help, only occasionally giving advice, which mostly consists of yelling, “Give it some stick!” in his thick Cockney accent when I hit the deep sand and don’t want to roll on the gas. Point is, a wreck out here would be bad. If I was too hurt to ride, I could be here a long time. If the bike wouldn’t run, ditto. A very conservative riding style develops. And then I hit the end of the water in my Camelback.
It’s two in the afternoon, and I’ve been at this for hours. It has, I have to admit, ceased to be fun. I have another litre of water in my Nalgene, nicely warmed up, and pour that into the Camelback. I’m wearing my jacket to keep the sun off me and in case I wreck, but it is plenty hot out here, and I’m sweating in a decidedly porcine way. (Do you know that pigs actually have no sweat glands, just like dogs?) I look in on the gas in the tank, but can’t draw any real conclusion about how much fuel is in there. I'm glad that I bought 91 octane--in my old aircooled motorbike, it almost pays for itself in increased mileage. I haven’t gone so many miles since filling up (200 mile range), but I haven’t gotten out of second gear much either, so it’s hard to say when I might go on reserve tank, indicating less than a gallon of fuel left. (This isn’t as dire as it sounds when you get 50 m.p.g. in top gear at 55-65 m.p.h. Poor man's Prius.)
I need to pee, and consider that probably I ought to pee in the Nalgene, just in case, so that I could drink it later if something goes seriously wrong, or if I’m more lost than I think that I am. (Not all who wander are lost, remember, but I was starting to think that I might be. Gandalf didn’t use G.P.S…) Just then, about two hundred yards a way, a great black S.U.V. with tinted windows thunders past perpendicular to my track. Hidden by a trick of the terrain, I am back at the paved road! Civilization! Cold beer and cheap plastic crap can’t be far off. I’m saved.
The hundred and some miles to Vegas are relatively easy, except that the ultra-solid Yamahoo is spitting oil onto my new left boot. Tales of motorcyle repair in Tucson to follow.