This was always going to be the day that I was most concerned about. I mean, if it’s not enough to fly half way round the world to buy a forty year old bike sight unseen and ride it 4000 miles across America, I was planning on taking it into Death Valley in search of a ghost town, with the vague intention of finding somewhere to bivi out in the desert for the night.I’m fortunate in that I’ve been riding the last few days with my inestimably affable and exceptionally resourceful brother in law, Philip who’s been living in the Bay Area for the last couple of years and is no stranger to hare-brained schemes of derring-do in the great outdoors. Having him along on his lovely yellow Triumph Tiger meant that not only was I guaranteed good company, but if it all went nipples north, I’d have a pillion ride out of the desert before I got a chance to fry.
We left Mojave fairly early in the morning in search of burritos. In retrospect, we should have skipped breakfast and headed for the National Park as early as possible because after a short ride to California City for what Google reliably informed us were the best breakfast burritos within a fifty mile radius, we were headed out into the baking sun way too late in the morning. Our ride up to Ballerat was pretty damned warm and by the time we turned off the road for the three and a half miles of rough track, we were already cooked.
It’s at this point, I ought to explain what on earth we were doing in Death Valley, anyway. If you’ve watched Easy Rider, you may remember the scene where Peter Fonda packs his gas tank with cash in a plastic tube, picks his nose, throws his watch in the dirt and rides off down a dusty desert road with Dennis Hopper. Well that was filmed at Ballerat and that’s where this ride *really* begins. Sure, it was of crucial importance to do a drug deal at the airport, but Captain America and Billy drove into Ballerat in an old truck and rode out on two of the most iconic motorcycles ever to appear on screen.
Ballerat has a fascinating history. Officially, it is an unincorporated community in Inyo county, California. Unofficially, it’s a large chunk of privately owned land upon which lives one man, the caretaker. I suspect that the owner lets him live there for free (or nearly free) in return for keeping an eye on the place. There’s a good potted history on a plinth at the turn-off point for the dirt track:
Ballarat served as a supply point for the mining operation at the canyons of the Panamint Range nearby:
As soon as the gold rush subsided, people left and eventually, Ballarat was all but abandoned. Check out the entry on Wikipedia and elsewhere to read up more about this fascinating place.
Turning off the main road, we were faced with what looked like a simple, dirt track to ride. Billy and The Captain didn’t look like they had trouble on their rigid chops and I was expecting it to be quite as difficult as it turned out to be. The problem was, decades of trucks trundling up and down the road have pushed the dirt into a series of ripples that when you ride over them on a motorcycle utterly devoid of suspension, sets up some kind of vicious standing wave of vibration that threatens to shake your brain loose from whatever holds it more or less square in your skull.
Worse still was that the bumpy ride was having some kind of effect on the way that the carbs were drawing fuel from the tank because the engine *really* didn’t like running all that much when subjected to that kind of abuse and I kept having to stop to rev it up and get the vapours following again. It was bloody hard work and took way longer than I’d have imagined. In the midday Death Valley floor heat, I arrived at Ballarat soaked with sweat and quite utterly exhausted.
When we arrived at the only viable looking building in the place, we were greeted by the caretaker and his only guest, another motorcyclist called Mario. He was an Austrian chap on a Yamaha WR250 who had ridden up from Cancun in South America and was headed to Alaska. He’d been doing a lot of off-road riding and rough camping and was probably feeling quite pleased with himself at having made it to Ballarat in the searing heat. Then some English lunatic on a hardtail chopper turned up with a leaking bottle of water bungeed on the back of her bike.
We exchanged a few pleasantries and he gave me a sticker with his website on – www.onthemovetoexplore.com. In retrospect, I should absolutely have got some hardtailchop.com stickers made up. Total rookie error. I took his photo as he got ready to go. You see that rusting old truck in the background? Apparently, it once belonged to Charles Manson, of culty-killydeth fame. Trufax.
Given that it was high noon and Phillip’s keyring thermometer had recently given up it’s grip on reality and decided to curl up it’s toes and die in his tank bag, we decided the pass a few hours on the porch with the caretaker. He had sodas for sale and seemed like a talkative chap. I suppose you would be if you lived out there on your own.
Phil did some drawing, I got busy with my DJI gimbal and shot some footage for the film. The caretaker (who’s name we never actually discovered) told tall tales. Apparently they hold an occasional free festival out on the land and it gets pretty wild. Dynamite was mentioned. There are NRA stickers everywhere and I fully suspect he is armed to the teeth. Certainly Phil and I noticed a very holstery-looking affair sticking out from under a pile of papers inside the shack.
The next couple of hours were both very agreeable and utterly surreal, for a variety of reasons. If you want to hear the full story, ask me when you see me because there are some things which should remain unpublished on the internet.
When it was time to leave, the caretaker gave us some bottled water to replace my sadly broken gallon jug. I gave him a fistful of dollars, because that seemed like the right thing to do. Ahead of us lay the evil, bouncy dirt track, but there was one last thing I needed to do and it involved the watch I’d been wearing on my wrist since I started this escapade.
Phil and I shot some more video and then it was time for the sacred ceremony of casting my unwanted timepiece into the dirt, symbolising my abandonment of societal expectations and slavish devotion to a mainstream lifestyle. It also made for some good film footage.
Then it was time to face that road:
By the time we got to the tarmac at the end of that, I was done in. I took shelter in the only shade structure in sight, the Ballarat plinth, and panted like a husky in Hawaii. In retrospect, the choice of dark denim riding gear and black helmet probably wasn’t all that clever.
It was still hot as hades and we didn’t have a clue where we were going to stop for the night. The caretaker had offered us use of an abandoned mobile home, but we politely declined. I had some idea about going to Stovepipe Wells or maybe Furnace Creek, but both of those were a long way down the road. We drank more water and got on our way:
After quite a lot of very, very hard riding, we made it to Stovepipe Wells and collapsed on the front porch of the visitors’ centre. Phil had soft-serve, I had about a litre of coconut water. We decided that we would stay there until an hour or so before sundown and then make for somewhere to bivi down for the night.
Whilst I was in the inevitable gift shop buying myself a clean t-shirt, I got talking to the guy behind the counter. I asked him where he’d sleep out for the night if he didn’t have an RV or a tent and he recommended we backtrack a few miles and make for either Emigrant at 3500ft or Wildrose at 5000ft. Sleeping at 1000ft would have been uncomfortably hot, but if we got up high, we stood a chance of a good night out in the open.
As it turned out, when we got to Emigrant, we had just about enough time to ride on to Wildrose before we lost the light. Phil and I climbed higher and higher as the sun set and it was beautiful. The heat haze faded and the sky darkened as we asked out bikes to safely deliver us up one more stretch of road.
I was leading as we decended through a very steep sided gorge, making tighter and tighter turns. Just as I was considering turning on my main beam, out of nowhere jumped this fucking terrifying half-dead donkey, looking all the world like it’s head was the sort of thing that a mafia boss had been keeping in a plastic bag in his car boot for a couple of days to get it nice and rancid before leaving it in someone’s bed.
I hauled on my bike’s forty year old anchors and with a great deal of relief (and my adrenal glands working overtime) I managed to stop in just enough time to shout “JESUS HOOFWANKING CHRIST!” at the startled animal. It turns out, the flea bitten equine in question was a burro, a small donkey, once used as a pack animal and now living wild in places like Death Valley. Sort of like an American equivalent of the New Forest ponies, only half-dead and completely fucking nightmarish up close.
Fortunately, round the next corner was the campsite. It was perfect – deep in a high gorge, a couple of RVs already parked up, with plenty of room for a couple of sweaty motorcyclists packing a supper of superheated hummus and avocado.
Phil and I rolled out our sleeping mats (and my rather natty Mexican blanket) just as the light was giving out. I saw a jackrabbit scuttling across the road. There was the most amazing cloud just over the hill, looking for all the world like some kind of cotton-wool UFO. It was perfect.
We ate our supper by headtorch, talked and swigged water. Then we got in our sleeping bags and looked up at the sky, watching the stars come out one by one. As a Londoner, I’m not used to skies like that – so many stars you can see their colours. Satellites whizzing by – everything twinkling and reminding you how small and insignificant you are in the face of the universe above.
It’s a colossal cliche, but at times like this, I’m reminded not to worry about finding ways to put more days in my life, but to look for opportunities of get more life in my days.