back to Death Valley


February 12, 2005

The alarm goes off at 7am.  Peter rolls out of bed at 7:25.  I remember why I don't do early morning departures with him very often.

It's about 530 miles from our house to the Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley National Park, even though the northern edge of the park is due east of us.  There's no direct route across the Sierra Nevada mountains that separate us from Death Valley, especially in winter when the passes are closed.  So, our route takes us south to Bakersfield and then back north to the park.

The map of our first day

Leaving the Bay Area, we head south and then east along Highway 152, which crests Pacheco Pass.  The pass is rumored to be haunted -- people report great discomfort and unease while crossing the pass. I can verify discomfort, but I think ours was more related to slow 18-wheelers and driving due east in the morning than to ghosts and spirits.

Peter was in a lot of pain by the time we started south on I-5; it turns out he'd managed to leave both of his Throttle Rockers at home and his forearm was cramping up.  He waffled and hemmed and hawed about riding somewhere to buy one; I sent him inside the gas station to ask if there was a nearby bike dealership.  It turned out that there was one about 8 miles away, so we took an unexpected detour to Golden Valley Harley-Davidson in Los Banos. The employees there were super nice and extremely helpful to Peter.  For all the good-natured (and sometimes not so much) ribbing we sport-touring folk give Harleys, I've always had excellent service at HD shops when I've been in need of something out on the road.  Peter felt badly about our stop, but I convinced him that it was my karmic retribution for making some friends stop at a HD dealership in Kingman, AZ in 100+ degree July heat when my chain clip came off.  

Once we were back on I-5, it was a nice boring ride down to Hwy 46.

We hopped onto Hwy 99 and headed east from Bakersfield on Hwy 58.  I somehow missed the last Bakerfield exit and Peter ended up running out of gas just outside Tehachapi -- he literally coasted to a stop right on the exit ramp.   Now we know that the Superhawk gets exactly 140 miles per tank. I rode into town for my own gas and to buy a can for Peter -- he called my cell phone right after I'd bought the can to tell me he'd coasted down the hill and found a different gas station.    Fortunately, I could return the can I'd just bought.

While I was waiting for Peter to show up, I managed to strike up a conversation with a toothless old local who told me all about his BSAs.  This was cool until he tried to get me to come home with him to see the bikes.  I tried to convince him that, really, I had to get going as we had about 200 miles still to go that day.  He was pretty insistent that we come home and see his BSAs.  The poor guy was probably just lonely and harmless, but it was still a little sketchy.

We stopped for gas and dinner in Pearsonville, right at the border between Inyo and Kern counties.  Peter bought some fleece gloves at the gas station as his hands were already cold (he still hasn't installed the heated grips I bought him two years ago...).  He'd been skeptical when I bought him a heated vest for Christmas, but he was really appreciating it as the sun went down on Highway 395.

The ride into the park was spectacular. We got gas in Olancha, right at the intersection of 395 and 190, at dusk; the eastern Sierras were sparkling with snow and sunset.

As expected, it was pitch black by the time we got into the twisty parts of the Panamints. The heated vest made such a difference, though, plus I'd guess it was at least 10 degrees warmer than it was when I was here in April. Wacky desert.

I let Peter get far ahead of me (the only part of the day when I wasn't in the lead) so that I could flick on my brights with impunity. You can't even look at the road up there when it's dark; instead, your eyes follow the reflector signs marking the cliff edges. It gets very surreal -- no other cars in front or behind, no lights anywhere, staring for flashes of reflective rectangles as you swoop around 35mph twisties in the darkness.

In the straght sections, I lifted my head up to see the stars...innumerable pinpricks in the sky. So many stars in the desert.

I scoffed at the many "loose gravel" signs propped up along the roadside -- after two weeks in Alaska, I'm used to those signs meaning "yeah, in about 5 feet? No more road." Here, they mean "pebble approaching, maybe". I did pay attention to the "dip" signs though -- well, I did after the first one, when both wheels left the ground after cresting said dip. Who needs Disneyland?

We got into Furnace Creek around 7:30 -- 530 miles in exactly 11 hours, including running out of gas and the throttle rocker detour to Los Banos.  Not too shabby!

On to day two....