From Death Valley to Joshua Tree

At the ADV event I had made plans with Oliver (a young Welshman on a Round the World motorcycle ride) to meet up in Joshua Tree National Park and then ride together to another motorcycle event in Amado, Arizona. Since Oliver had to return to Los Angeles to collect some parts for his bike, he left Death Valley on Sunday and we were to meet up on Monday evening at Joshua Tree.

I headed south from the Panamint Springs campground mid-morning on Monday, March 28. It was a lovely day, still cool at that point but with clear skies that promised desert heat would soon have me taking off layers. The winds that had been omnipresent throughout my stay in Death Valley were calm at last and I felt more than ready to get back on the bike and continue the journey.

It was only a little over 200 miles to the campground at Joshua Tree where I was to meet Oliver, so I was in no particular rush. The road south was largely straight, there were no other cars, and I kept to a speed that allowed me to watch the landscape as much as the road. My route took me quickly out of Death Valley National Park, but the artificial boundaries of a park are immaterial to the landscape. It was still stark and barren, filled mostly with dry scrub and desert grass, distant hills marking the valley through which I rode. As my journey wended south the scenery changed in small ways, still with the quiet expanse of high desert, but now there were haunting rock formations and splashes of colour — dusky greens and vibrant yellows.

I stopped frequently to take photos and as I slowed one particular time, I saw a coyote just ahead. He had just inched out of the concealing grasses or I would never have seen him, his rough fur blended well with the scrub and grasses along the road. I pulled in the clutch and let myself coast to a stop, hoping I might somehow be able to get out my camera in time. But before I was even at a full stop, he darted in front of me across the pavement, disappearing quickly into the grasses. I watched across the distance, hoping to see him again, and wondered what coyote-businesses had brought him across my path in the late morning. But he was long gone, not even a rustle of grass to mark where he might have run.  I continued on my journey with a pleased smile beneath my helmet, buoyed by that brief encounter with a denizen of the high desert.

Not long after the coyote crossed my path, I started to see signs of humanity marring the endless landscape. And then far too quickly I was on the outskirts of a town. Ramshackle houses, factory buildings, empty storefronts, powerlines. I stopped for petrol and coffee at a convenience store.

After refueling both myself and my bike, I was back on the road. I soon merged onto US-395 and was back amidst impatient SUVs and semis. The landscape closed in, no longer endless vistas, homes and buildings dotted the roadway and traffic increased steadily.

I stopped for lunch at the crossroads town of Kramer Junction, which seemed to exist only as a place for truckers and travellers to fill up their tanks and grab unhealthy fast-food meals. The desert heat promised by the morning’s clear skies was in full force and I stripped off layers of gear before continuing the last leg of my day’s travel.

I arrived at the Blackrock Campground in Joshua Tree National Park just on five o’clock. I rode through the campground looking for Oliver but he had apparently not yet arrived. So I found a likely spot and set up my own camp. Then through the miracle of cell phones (and the fact the campground was on the edge of the town of Yucca Valley rather than deep within the park boundaries) I was able to check for messages and learned that Oliver had been delayed in LA and would not arrive until midday on Tuesday.

So I settled in on my own, cooked up some soup and tea, then explored the campground before it became too dark. Sitting at the picnic table as dusk deepened I saw a pair of roadrunners dash across my campsite into a bush. And discovered that they are quite fast and my camera no where near good enough to capture them in photos.

That evening ensconced in my tent with my handy headlamp providing illumination I poured over my map of Joshua Tree National Park and planned the next afternoon’s adventure. I was looking forward to meeting up again with Oliver as it would be lovely to have someone to share the adventure with. I nestled into my sleeping bag early and tried to sleep despite the shrieks of the children camped nearby. But the weariness of a traveller overcame their shrill cries and I finally fell asleep.

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An Observation on Adventures

No matter how gorgeous the scenery or fascinating the sights, in the end any grand adventure is mostly about the people you meet. I’ve had fabulous times in otherwise forgettable places all because of the fellow wanderers I encountered or the hospitality of the locals. It is usually your willingness to let the journey unfold, in whatever unexpected form, that makes for the best adventures. You can not hold too fast to a plan or a route or a schedule because it is the unexpected encounters, the road not on your map, the invitation to drinks that make for lasting memories and exhilarating tales. And it is embracing that traveller’s truth that has always led me on the best adventures, a truth no different on a long motorcycle ride than on any other journey.

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For the Browncoats: a Firefly moment in Death Valley

Due somewhat to my rather memorable arrival, and that I had travelled the farthest to attend the Death Valley gathering, and of course to my being a female rider touring solo through the U.S., I was rather quickly well-known at the event. I’d had quite a few people interested in what brought me to the event, why I was riding through the U.S., and all the other questions asked by motorcyclists of other motorcyclists met on a long ride.

So it wasn’t particularly shocking to be approached by one of the few other women riders at the event and asked about my experiences as a female rider travelling solo. Cris and I connected immediately and sat down around the fire to talk of riding and the particulars of solo travel for women. She quickly introduced me to her husband, Chris, and we three along with another long-distance traveller, Oliver, hung out in the light of the dancing flames and shared tales of adventure.

And as happens when you have a few folk sitting companionably around a fire there was a lull in the grand stories and we hit upon the mundane of where we were from, what we did, etc. I made mention of owning Wayward Coffeehouse in Seattle, and Chris mentioned that he worked as a dolly grip on a television show.

I asked what show he worked on, and he replied quite casually that he worked on Castle and asked if I ‘d heard of it. I almost dropped my beer!

“You’re gorram kidding! Of course I watch Castle, Nathan Fillion is on it! I’m a huge Browncoat. My entire coffeehouse was dedicated to all things Firefly! Look, I even have a Firefly patch on my motorcycle jacket!” (and I promptly showed it to him).

Whereupon Chris says, “That’s so cool. Nathan will get a kick out of the fact we met you. I wish there was cell service so I could tweet him about meeting you right now.”

Oh yeah, feeling the giddy. Grin.

So not to be too much of a fangirl, we moved the conversation on after a few more exchanges about how much of a Browncoat I am, how much I love Joss Whedon and Firefly in particular, and Chris mentioned that he had also worked on Angel.

But fast forward two days to the morning everyone at the event is leaving, and I had the chance to sit down again with Cris and Chris for some farewells and promises to meet up again. I invited them to stay with me in Seattle should they be up that way and they reiterated the hope I’d make it to another moto event the following weekend that they were going to attend.

And as we said our goodbyes, Chris asked for a photo of me with the Firefly patch (actually its the Independent Army insignia patch Mal wore on his uniform in the battle scene at Serenity Valley in the pilot episode Serenity).  So he took a photo of the patch on my motorcycle jacket.

SHINY!

I believe it was sent/shown to Nathan Fillion, and the story conveyed of how Chris met a Browncoat motorcyclist riding solo through the U.S. after her dedicated to Firefly business Wayward Coffeehouse was destroyed by a fire.

I unfortunately didn’t have cell or internet for several days so didn’t get the chance to check if the story was tweeted about … but if someone is feeling industrious you might want to have a look at tweets from around the end of March/first of April. :-)

To all my much missed Browncoats, geeks, and friends of Wayward Coffeehouse … this moment made me think of all of you. Doing the impossible, because I am to keep flyin’. Somehow, somewhen, we will reopen. And that makes us mighty.

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My Weekend in Death Valley

The weekend in Death Valley National Park amid a hundred or so adventure riders was an amazing few days meeting some fantastic folk, drinking heaps of beer, and even doing a bit of riding.

Most of the other participants were on dirt or dual-sport bikes and were there to explore the off-road adventures offered by the stunning landscape of the largest national park in the U.S. I, however, was on a street bike and wasn’t particularly feeling the lure of attempting dirt for the first time. Not to fret, though, as the park offered plenty of miles of pavement leading me to some spectacular sites.

Stunningly coloured rock formations known as Artists’ Palette, although this photo doesn’t capture the amazing hues of rose, blue, green, orange, and purple. It was a narrow, winding route through the rocks and the best views were at points where it was unsafe to stop and take photos.
A stop along the way through Death Valley National Park.

I explored the park on the Saturday with two other riders who were feeling the call of pavement that day, and we had a fantastic time. Riding with others is a very different experience from riding on your own, but we three seemed to mesh well in terms of when to stop, what to explore, and how silly to be. We did just on 100 miles under a blue sky, through winding passes and sweeping stretches of desert, and temperatures from 45 to 85 degrees.

The sign says it all.

At famous Badwater, we walked out across the salt flats at the lowest elevation in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level. We explored the remnants of a mine, had lunch at a typically over-priced tourist restaurant, and then took silly photos of ourselves at the sand dunes. It was a lovely day of riding and exploring made all the better for having folks to share the experience with.

Standing inside the fence at a former borax mine. It wasn’t until after the photo that we saw the sign saying “stay outside fence”. Damn motorcyclists!
Oliver, the pale red-headed Welshman, forgot to wear sunscreen, so in Bedouin style he’s using my hoodie to block the scorching sun being reflected off the glaringly bright salt flats at Badwater. 

Standing in the salt flats. It’s both very fecking hot and very fecking bright.

Oliver checking that the salt flats really are made of salt (yep, tastes like salt). I checked too, but apparently there’s no photographic evidence of that. Really.
Shadows saluting in the sand dunes of Death Valley National Park.

One of the most amazing things about the weekend event was how fabulously friendly and generous everyone was. From helping each other out with bike repairs to making sure everyone had a beer in hand, the general sense of comeraderie was brilliant.

Though most folks left on Sunday morning, myself and a handful of others stayed an extra day to have a leisurely time at the camp. I had heaps of fun hanging out with Rob and Andy whom I had met at the start of the event.  We had a mini-swapmeet that afternoon where I acquired from Andy a much needed flourescent orange tie for my spare bike key (seeing as I had managed to lose my original key on the first day at the camp, so needed a means to ensure I didn’t lose the spare as well).

That night we sat around a small campfire and shared  stories and laughed and watched the stars in a much quiter camp. And though it had been an amazing weekend in Death Valley amidst a madly wonderful group of adventure riders, the next morning it was time to resume my own wayward ride.

Sunset on my final night in Death Valley at a much quieter campsite.
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Riding into Death Valley: 24 March 11

NOTE: Reckon am well past the point of being able to go back and do day-by-day posts so rather than continuing to be weeks behind on the tales am going to try for a couple of sum up posts. This one is about the ride to DVNP for a weekend gathering of riders from ADVrider.

The ride into Death Valley National Park was a nice bopping-along morning out of Bakersfield, CA as I left the rains behind me. Heading up into the high desert was amazing as I felt I was finally encountering an evironment new to me after so many days along the coast. And though the route was largely straight there was enough scenery (and little enough traffic) to keep it from being boring.

View along I-395 approaching Olancha, CA.

I headed north up the 395 and after a brief petrol and water break made the right turn onto 190. Winds had started kicking up minutes before that turn, but I didn’t think much of it as I knew I wasn’t too far from my destination of the Panamint Springs campground.

Brief stop for petrol in Olancha, CA just before making the right turn onto 190.

But I had just enough time to get up to 65 mph on the rather straight and narrow road before being slammed from the right by a steady gale from the south. Ahead of me dust started blowing across the pavement obscurring the road and everything else. I leaned hard to the right trying to keep from being toppled over. It can’t last long, I thought.

But the wind didn’t abate and instead came with greater and greater force and I leaned further and further to the right, my arm straining to keep the pressure on and my knee less than a foot from the road. I stared ahead and watched as the eddying streams of dust briefly revealed a slight curve to the left.

No one had ever told me how to handle 60+ mph winds, how to keep the bike and myself from being bashed over into the pavement, or what to do when the bike skittered over the road from the incredible force of the gale.

Winds and hail and rain I’d already ridden through, but what I thought had been strong winds along the coast was nothing compared to that of a high desert valley skirting the edge of a dried and dead lakebed.
The fear and anxiety I had felt the week before was nothing compared to the terror of encountering that steady and implacable force which I knew wanted nothing more than to push me off the road and gleefully tumble me across the desolate landscape.

I leaned harder. I felt my stomache drop to my toes, my heartbeat quicken to where it seemed still, my breath cease with the concentration of maintaining that desperate lean into the wind.

All such terrifying moments seem to last forever. Mine actually lasted for 15 minutes, or the 15 miles from Olancha CA along the dried Owens Lake to the right turn toward Panamint Springs.

And there was a pivotal moment in the first few minutes of that stretch where I knew I had but two options before me: figure it out and survive or let the panic rob me of instinct and tenacity and therefore my life. It was not an instant decision. There was a flash of infinite time where I thought, “I can’t possibly do this.”

But then the choice was made to breathe, to lean, to let instinct and experience have rule over the fear.

Ahead I could see where the stretch of eternity I was riding met the grace of a right turn into the wind. As I approached that stop sign, 500 feet, 300 feet, 100 feet … the wind finally eased. Then with a last caressing whisper it ceased just as I came to a stop.

I looked off to my right, arms and legs trembling in reaction, the bike shuddering in synergy with my body, and I could see that the wind was still driving with unabated force across the plain just crossed.

I took a deep breath. I would think later about that last caress of the wind’s unstinting pride that I had met its challenge and prevailed. Because I still had 30 miles of narrow, winding, steep mountain road before getting to Panamint Springs.

And I made it through those tight twisties with their switchbacks, sheer cliffs, narrow lanes, blind corners, and impatient SUVs. I saw the tiny speck of a sign for Panamint Springs Resort, and made the hard left into the gravel campground.

I saw bikes and people gathered in the otherwise empty campground and made my way toward them. I came to a surprisingly graceful stop in the gravel and asked where the tent spaces were. They greeted me warmly, everyone seemed to know who I was because of my posts on the forum, and with directions to “go around to the right and head back over that way” to the tent sites, I put the bike back into first and eased forward for the turn.

And then I and the bike promptly fell over.

But even as I thought to myself, “I’ll just camp here” and started with amazing aplomb to put my hands behind my helmet as if I really had meant to just fall over, there were many hands there to pick both me and the bike up.

I heard shouts of “hey, I do that five times a day!” “I give that a 10 for the landing!” “hey, your saddlebags saved the bike, not a scratch” “anyone get a photo? no? well then, no photos, it didn’t happen!”

Some of the helpful ADVers who got me and my bike upright after my post-traumatic falling over. The grand entrance garnered me free beer and a spectacularly fun first night at the rally.

I was back on the bike before I fully realized what was happening. And with their good-natured acceptance of my spectacular fall, I allowed myself only about a minute to collect myself before I started the bike back up, and somehow navigated the deep gravel on my well-loaded Triumph Bonneville to a tent site.

Welcome to Death Valley. You’re going to have a brilliant time! And I did.

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Images from the ride so far

Turns out keeping a blog updated whilst on the road is somewhat more of a challenge than I reckoned it would be. Between slow internet connections or no internet at all, and being largely wrecked tired at the end of hundreds of miles each day, I’m admittedly behind.

But I managed to get an early start to riding today, and thus got to my cheap dodgy motel accommodation early enough that I was able to at least upload a few photos.

So to whet your appetite for the updates sure to come within the next few days, here are a few photos from the ride so far:

Along the Oregon Coast. First attempt to use the Gorilla tripod borrowed from a mate for the trip. NOTE: It may look sunny out, but it was a brief respite from the rain, and it was still cold! I'm actually wearing long underwear, t-shirt, hoody, heated liner, armoured motorcycle jacket, AND an outer rain jacket. Yes, that's SIX layers.

 

View from Hwy 101 along the Oregon Coast. Was surprised at how much it reminded me of the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia. Except it was a feck of a lot colder!

 

First campsite on my own in Bandon, Oregon. Thankfully it had stopped raining just as I was setting up camp. That was not the case in the morning when I had to break it down!

 

One of my favorite photos so far. A harrowing ride through a mountain pass in Northern California on Hwy 101 with wind, rain, and heavy fog. But it was stunning, when I could see it!

 

Yes, that's my bike on the footpath in San Francisco in front of the Ace Cafe. Very bike-friendly pub. The owner was a delight and I had a fabulous time (especially since the mate I was in SF to say g'day to had to work unexpectedly!)

 

282 feet below sea level at Badwater in Death Valley National Park. With me are two folks I met at the ADVrider event I was attending. We went for a day's "pavement" ride through the park and had a fabulous time. Rob is on the left and Oliver aka Wales is in the middle. That's me sweltering in too many layers since it was in the 40s earlier in the ride, but at Badwater it was in the 80s.

 

Riding through Joshua Tree National Park with Oliver. Amazing scenery with mythic rock formations and striking desert flora.

 

Sunset in Joshua Tree National Park from our campsite. If only I could have managed to get the bike in the photo as well! But those mesmerizing colours and the streaks of light shooting into the sky over the rocks lasted for an impossibly long time. One of the most amazing sites I've witnessed on this adventure.

 

Well, those give you a wee taste of the first 2 weeks of the adventure and some hint of the tales still to be told.

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G’day from Death Valley

Between having a brilliant time hanging out in Death Valley National Park with heaps of ADVriders, the complete absence of cell service, and very spotty internet, am a bit behind in my updates!

Despite the dodgy weather getting here, its been mostly gorgeous at the campsite. Winds still kick up in the late afternoon and evening, but its sunny and warm most of the time.

Been sharing tales, drinking beer, meeting heaps of fabulous folk, making friends and connections, and going for stunning rides through the park.

It has been a brilliant few days and looking to stay an extra day just to soak up this fantastic landscape.

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Day 7: Leaving San Francisco

Day 7:  San Francisco to Bakersfield
Wednesday, March 23

Managed to find my way out of San Francisco fairly easily and then it was 85 miles of multi-lane Hwy 101 before finally leaving the traffic behind. It was dry in SF but it wasn’t long before the rains started up again. It lasted through the morning and then tapered off through the early afternoon.

Once I turned east onto Hwy 46, the winds were eager to replace the rain and it was a long stretch of straight forever road fighting against the wind. There was a desolate petrol station somewere along the way where I stopped to fill the tank. It was a short break from the effort of riding in the poor weather with nothing more than bad coffee and a quick ciggie for company.

By the time I was approaching Bakersfield, however, it was once again pissing rain. The last miles on Hwy 99 were amidst huge semis and whizzing traffic. But I soon saw the sign for Vagabond Inn, my destination for the night, so I was finally able to exit the slab and settle in for the evening.

Despite the wind and rain that punctuated the day’s ride, it was in some ways the easiest since that first day heading out of Seattle. It was also the least eventful with little in the way of scenery to enrich the journey. After the number of days in stormy weather through stunning coastal and mountain scenery, though, it’s relative mundanity was somewhat welcome.

Once ensconced in the motel it was time to plan the next day’s ride. My intention for the next day was to ride to Panamint Springs in Death Valley National Park to attend a “n00b rally” of riders from ADVrider. There were still more storm fronts forecasted for the area I hoped to ride through and it was a mad frenzy online to check the various routes and weather forecasts and check with other folks attending the rally to see what would be the safest way to get there given the weather and possible road conditions.

I had arrived into Bakersfield from my 300 mile day in the early evening, and after spending hours planning and revising and checking on my next day’s route, I was exhausted. For the first time since leaving I turned on the TV in the motel room and let my mind and body relax to its familiar droning. After an hour, though, it was time to curl up for the night in hopes of getting up early to catch the weather forecasts, make a final decision on my route, and leave early enough for a midday arrival at Panamint Springs.

It had been a long day, but I also knew that the adventure was still beginning.

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Day 5: From Pissing Rain to a Pissup

Day 5: Monday, March 21
Eureka CA to San Francisco, CA; 272 miles

My original intention was to take two days to get to San Francisco from Redwoods National Park. But I had gone as far as Eureka the day before and now SF was potentially a day’s ride away. And now being aware that there was a winter storm ravaging Northern and Central California, I was rethinking my intention to take Hwy 1 down the coast. So I spent the evening before checking NOAA, forums, maps, and the mate I intended to stay with in SF. Given the forecast of more rain and wind, and the okay to stay two nights instead of one with my mate, I decided to make the trek to SF in a single day and take Hwy 101 instead of the more scenic (but twistier) Hwy 1.

Having exploded all my gear in the room the night before to let everything dry out, I was able to repack remarkably quickly in the morning. I did some last minute checking of forecasts and maps, sent off a few emails, loaded the saddlebags back onto the bike, and was on the road around 9:30 am.

As I set off, I was greeted with sunshine out of Eureka. I assumed it was to be short-lived and mentally girded myself for another day fighting the onslaught of wind and rain.

Within minutes of leaving the motel, I had a heartening wave from a Eureka firefighter driving a ladder rig. It made me smile and for some reason eased the nervousness I had about setting off into more dodgy weather. I reckon he himself was a rider, and was giving the “wave” as best he could from his place behind the wheel of a firetruck. It was an acknowledgment of surprising power that here I was, obviously loaded up for a long ride on a bike heading into stormy weather, and something about that compelled this (presumably) fellow rider to give me that wave of greeting even from the cab of his firetruck. So thank you, as it made my morning, and was a moment to remind myself of throughout the day (and days to come).

[still working on this report, so check back]

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Day 4: Riding through Wind/Rain/Hail/Fog

Day 4: Sunday, March 20
Bandon OR to Eureka CA

Woke up very early and the rain that had started in the middle of the night was still going. My tent was nestled under some trees giving some protection, but taking down my camp in the rain whilst trying to keep things dry was a challenge. Reckon will find out how well I did when I go to set up camp again!

My plan for the day was to get to the Redwood National Park and find somewhere to camp. It wasn’t meant to be a very long day of riding as I had it in my head that if I got there early enough I could do some exploring once camp was set up.

As I left Bandon heading south on Hwy 101 the rain picked up and I quickly encountered some bursts of hail along with driving winds and frequent strong gusts. It was to be the theme of the day.

The early part of the ride took me quickly out to the coast from my somewhat inland campsite. I was not expecting the stunning landscape of the Oregon sand dunes. In doing this ride with little more than a general direction for my guide, I had no idea that such an area existed. Despite living in Seattle for years, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the Oregon Sand Dunes (someone needs to have a chat with their tourism board) but encountering them unexpectedly was a great delight. If only it hadn’t been raining so hard I might have managed to take some photos.

But the route soon left the dunes and crashing waves and after passing into California my ride wended inland through changing elevations and lush forest. The road surface deteriorated as well becoming rough with undulating blacktop patches, potholes, gravel, debris, and cracks. Not to mention I began encountering seriously narrow twisties with little or no shoulders.

In good weather this could have been some skills-building riding, but in pissing rain with heavy fog making my visibility almost nil, it was more nerve-wracking than exhilirating. Add to the mix impatient pricks in pickups and SUVs nestled a few feet off my arse and it became something of a white-knuckled, heart-racing, breath-stopping ride for a few hours.

As I finally came out of the twistiest section where fog had made visibility non-existent, I was mentally and physically exchausted. And my hands and feet were soaked. Apparently neither gloves nor boots remain waterproof after that long in constant rain.

And so my plan of camping in the Redwood National Park changed and I decided I wanted to get a little further along and find a motel to dry out and warm up. So I pushed on to Eureka and sought refuge from the weather.

And of course, just after I paid for the night and started bringing my gear into the room, the weather broke and sunshine turned the pavement into blinding glare. But it was nearly 5 pm and I was done riding for the day.

Once at the motel I hopped online and discovered that the reason the weather had been so dreadful the past few days was that (unbeknownst to me) I had been riding during a very bad late season winter storm.

Its not what I would have chosen, to ride those tight twisties over rough roads in dodgy weather, but once safe and warm again I knew immediately that it was a feat to be proud of, and a story that would be told over and over again. Its what the ride is about, meeting those challenges and living adventure however it greets you.

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