West Side story

 

White minerals shine,
Sun bites down, an angry glare;
heat sinks to the depths

Hal, Juliette 3207 small

March 14, 2017

Heat, shimmering white minerals, and vast distances – that was what I thought I would experience today on West Side Rd. during our last riding day in Death Valley for this trip.

The day started much the same as yesterday, with a ride up and over Daylight Pass. However, Hal and I took the “Beatty cutoff” down toward Furnace Creek. Our plan was to ride West Side Rd., a road that runs between the floor of Death Valley and the Panamint Range.

As is typical for the deceptively vast distances in Death Valley, by the time we got on West Side Rd. we had already ridden 50 miles from our starting point in Beatty. When you look at a map of Death Valley, you often don’t realize how spread out it is, and how far it is between destinations – and fuel stations.

Road behind us 3217 small

West Side Rd. started out heading west from the paved road. It went through the white mineral deposits on the floor of Death Valley. We stopped to look at it, how amazing and unique the white snow-like minerals are.

Minerals, closeup 3210 small

We also aired down our tires since the road’s surface became corrugated, alternating with sections of big gravel. As the road turned south, we were able to travel quickly, but we stopped at a few roadside attractions.

Shorty's grave 3225 small

 

There was a hidden spring, which we never did find, then a prospector’s grave, and then a plaque that told of a group of people trapped here in the valley for a month, unable to go on. The story was that they sent a couple of younger members of the party to find help, and the young people eventually returned with provisions so the rest could make it out alive. I wondered how many stories similar to that one that have never been publicly told or acknowledged. I am sure there are many.

Bennett's Long Camp 3230 small

As we did this stop-and-go thing, it was getting hot. Finally, there were no more things to look at, and we just kept riding to keep the air flowing. All the vents were open in my riding jacket, and I appreciated my dual sport helmet. I haven’t worn it too much in the past, but lately I have really taken advantage of its many benefits. During our exploration of West Side Rd., we passed four different roads that led into the mountains, all designated “four wheel drive roads.” We talked about exploring them on our next visit!

The road is 40 miles long and it is made up mostly of deep gravel. There were a few small spots of deep sand as well. I haven’t quite learned the technique of going faster and floating over the top of the sand, but I made it through anyway.

Airing up 3235 small

Finally, we made it to the south end of the road, aired up the tires, and got back on pavement. We stopped briefly at Badwater Basin, officially the lowest spot in Death Valley, and talked for a short time with another rider.

 

Badwater Basin 3242 small

GPS at Badwater 3241 small

Hal wanted a photo of his GPS showing 289 feet below sea level in elevation. Earlier, he had seen it read as low as -307 feet as we came through areas near the mountains on West Side Rd.

After Badwater Basin, we rode the 90 miles back to Beatty. When we got there, we were “done” from the heat, tired and dehydrated. Hal got some cold sweet tea from the candy store and I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything so good.

We went to dinner at Gema’s again, which was super delicious. Then Hal drove the Xterra out to Rhyolite so we could look at the stars in the complete blackness. We also tried (in our own little amateurish way) to shoot photos of the stars, but that was ridiculous since we really don’t know how to do it. It was beautiful to see the myriad stars anyway, away from the light pollution of any populated area.

Today was our longest day on the bike – 175 miles, making our total for this trip 490 miles. Tomorrow we leave Beatty behind (already) and return home. These great times and great rides seem to always be over in the blink of an eye.

Scenes from Death Valley

 

Alex at A. Point 3099 smallIn order to save time this morning, Hal and I had breakfast at the Denny’s in Beatty, NV. Despite the fact that they were out of a lot of food items (due to the somewhat remote location), it was an excellent choice. The cook is really good – my “poached hard” eggs were done to perfection. The objections I have to this particular restaurant are it is in the back of a casino, and it has no windows. That means you have to walk through all the ugly smells of cigarette smoke and cheap booze, and the noise from the slot machines and bad music to get there. I know this is done on purpose, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

After escaping from casino hell, we formulated our plan, which was to go back to Wildrose Road and explore the dirt roads we’d seen yesterday radiating from the main road. Once we got out there, we accidentally went past the first one we came to, so we proceeded to the second road. It turned out to be a great choice because it was the best of the two.

It is an easy dirt road, with a few tight, narrow places, which are interesting and fun. After those, we started to climb steeply to an overlook, which led to Aguereberry Point, named after Pete Aguereberry, who mined in the area from 1905 until he died in 1945. Later, we would find and explore his camp.

Aguereberry sign 3100 small

While up on top, we stopped, took photos of a scene that was every bit as spectacular as the Dante’s View overlook that I’d photographed a couple of years ago. This view is on the other side of the main “floor” of Death Valley, so we were looking at it from the west this time. It is said that Pete Aguereberry built this road to the overlook so he could share the amazing view with others. I am so grateful that he did. We spent some time there, but then went up higher by riding some steep exposed switchbacks to get to the highest point.

The view was even better, and we hiked a short trail to the farthest point north. It hung over the valley toward Stovepipe Wells. The minerals in the valley below shimmered white in the sun and we gazed in awe at another spectacular view that included interesting geographic features and formations. I took lots of photographs so I could later show my sixth grade students when I got home.

Me looking down 3113 small

After drinking it all in, we rode back down. We’d passed two mountain bikers on the way up, and when we pulled over to get Hal’s video camera running, the two cyclists stopped and talked to us. Husband and wife, they had camped at Wildrose campground, and this was their planned ride for today. They were in great shape, obviously, and I thought of my mountain bikes sitting idle at home. Sometimes I’d like to get one of those racks that attaches to a motorbike to carry bicycles. Anyway, the cyclists were very interesting to talk to. The man had done the CDT last year, and that got my mind spinning. I’d like to do it, too, but I think I’d take a moto!

Soon we found the mining camp, and left our bikes at the road because no motorized vehicles are allowed past the entrance. Aguereberry camp is where Pete lived and worked.

Homestead 3139 small

Above: Pete probably watched the sunset each evening from the front of his home. In the winter, he watched the storms roll in over the mountains. I am sure the beauty was worth all the hardship of living in such a remote place.

The buildings are in rough shape now, due mainly to people vandalizing things, but you can still get a sense of how it was when it was a working camp. We took lots of photos there, in and out of the buildings. It always amazes me how these people, who had a pretty rough life, were so passionate about Death Valley, how they loved it so much. I love it too, but I don’t know if I’d like living there through the heat of summer. There was no air conditioning, and people had to work constantly, no matter what the weather was. Apparently, Pete was fairly successful. Later in this trip, we would continue to see evidence of the love people have felt over the years for the seemingly desolate Death Valley.

While at the camp, Hal and I also walked farther up the road to where an abandoned car was parked, presumably Pete’s, deteriorating in the sun. Again I wondered why people have this need to destroy things. The car, I guessed it was a 1946 Buick, was deteriorating, but most of the damage was (sadly) human-caused.

Me and car 3186 small

It would have been nice to see it somewhat intact. Hal and I spent some time photographing it, and then when we walked back down the hill to where we had to park our bikes, we spent more time talking with the mountain biking couple.

Finally, we left that road and rode down to the other dirt road. It, however, wasn’t as long, or as interesting. The road was supposed to lead to the remains of a town called “Skidoo” that reached its heyday in about 1907.

Skidoo sign 3194 small

However, when we got there, we found that there was almost nothing left of it, just a few random pieces of rusting metal strewn around the desert.

Skidoo remains 3196 small

While we were there looking around and trying to get a sense of the place from the sign that showed an old photograph of the town, an SUV came blasting along the road, passing the town site and continuing west on a road that was supposed to end where we were. Being curious, and because the vehicle didn’t return, we got back on the bikes and decided to follow the road. Maybe it led back to the main road? Instead, we found ourselves on rough two-track that got narrower and more precarious. It hung on the side of the mountain with no barrier between the right wheel track and the drop-off. It was obviously not well traveled. After less than a mile, we found the end of the road – and the vehicle, the doors flung open, and no one in sight. It was really strange. The SUV was parked right in front of a gated mine entrance. I saw brightly-colored workout shoes lying on the floor of the front seat, but no humans anywhere. Suddenly, I got that tingly feeling of being where I shouldn’t be, and I said to Hal, “Let’s get out of here!” So we did.

As we descended, I kept looking in my rear-view as we rode fast toward the paved road. Once, I thought I saw the SUV behind us, negotiating the turns in a cloud of dust. We were flying along, and I had all kinds of crazy thoughts of the vehicle running us down for daring to follow it to the end of the road. You never know. Finally, after several minutes of riding hell-bent for leather, we reached pavement, and Hal pulled over to the side to start the video camera again. It wasn’t too long before the SUV roared past us. I cringed. At least they left us alone. I can’t imagine what was going on with them, and the whole episode was so strange.

After that, we relaxed and rode back down through Stovepipe Wells where, once again, it was super hot until we started to ride up Daylight Pass to return to Beatty. Today’s ride was only 145 miles or so, and we went to dinner (delicious) at Gema’s. After dinner, we decided to drive over to the local Family Dollar (my favorite place while on the road) to get some candy and other stuff that we needed.

Tomorrow is already our last riding day here. This trip is, as usual, is going by way too fast.

Next: A road on the floor of Death Valley

Dirt bike gangs, and Death Valley daze

Alex, snow mtn 3042 small

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On Saturday, March 11, we left home and traveled in the Xterra with the dirt bikes on a trailer behind us to Death Valley, California, our annual spring pilgrimage to a place that we love. This is our fifth year that we have made this trip, and we were hoping to explore new places. On the way, we met our friends in Las Vegas for lunch, always a pleasant experience, then continued to Beatty, Nevada, the gateway to Death Valley.

Sunday morning, I awoke after a restless night. Hal and I walked from where we were staying to one of our favorite places, Gema’s, for breakfast. Gema’s, a tiny place, serves excellent food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. While we were there, we overheard a child talking excitedly on the phone, probably to his dad, about all the “dirt bike gangs” in town, and about how they were all orange! His dad probably then told him that they were KTM bikes because the next thing the boy said was, “Yeah, KTMs!” Hal and I laughed to ourselves. Dirt bike gangs, indeed. 😉

By the time we got back to the hotel to gear up for our day of riding, most of the fabled dirt bike gangs were gone, many of the outlaw riders probably having to return to their real jobs the next day. We, however, were lucky to have a few days off and some adventuresome riding ahead of us, so we fueled up and headed out. We had talked about going back to the Fluorspar Mine road where we had been last year, but at the main intersection in town, Hal was leading, and before I knew it, he led us onto Daylight Pass. I was saying “WTF?” to myself, but I went along with it.

Up we went onto Daylight Pass, then down the other side to the kiosk to buy the park pass, 20 bucks for each moto and rider. While we were there, two different couples asked us for directions. We must look friendly and approachable, not “dirt bike gang-y” at all, apparently, because that happens to us all the time.

Back on the bikes, we rode down the long descent to the floor of Death Valley, to zero elevation and below, then west through Stovepipe Wells. As we rose out of the valley into the Panamint mountain range, Hal was looking for a road, “Emigrant Pass Rd.” However, we rode almost to Panamint Springs before we decided we were way too far and turned around.

The road was actually called Wildrose Rd. (when we finally found it), and it climbed steeply toward the southeast for about 40 miles. There was a sign that promised charcoal kilns, and of course we wanted to see them. On the way, we saw lovely mountains covered with snow, and the air became cooler as we rose in elevation. To the west, behind us, the Sierras were covered with deep snow at their peaks.

Snow-covered Sierras 3044 small

Once we got to Wildrose campground, the road, still paved at that point, grew narrow, then the pavement finally ended. It was a short but rough climb up to the charcoal kilns. The small parking lot was full, of course, but we managed to find space for our bikes. I thought of the coke ovens near where we live, but these kilns made the coke ovens look like miniatures. There were 10 of them, and people were walking in and out of them, interested in seeing them up close, as we were.

Kilns 3049 small

Surprisingly, inside one of them, a man was playing a guitar. “Come on in,” said the sign at the entrance to that kiln, so we did. Another man joined the first man, and I talked to him briefly to find out that he was going to record some music inside the kiln!

Musicians 3051 small

The acoustics inside were lively, and so when the two men played together, it made a harmonious and bright sound. It made me think of one of my favorite groups, Pentatonix, who have a couple of videos showing them singing in Death Valley.

Hal actually saw and heard the music in the kiln most, as I was outside walking around exploring. There were more people at this place than you’d expect for such a remote location, but I have learned that no matter how “remote” you think a place is, hundreds of people already know all about it even though it’s a brand new discovery for you. Nothing is left undiscovered anymore.

Just past the kilns to the east, the road was closed and gated because of the snow and ice beyond the gate. We were above the snow line, and saw patches of snow in the surrounding forest as well as a few small patches behind (north of) the kilns. A mom and her daughter were having a “gentle” snowball fight that the little girl initiated. They were laughing and having fun.

We stayed for a little while, enjoying everything, then got on the bikes to head back to the highway. As we went, I realized what a steep grade those last few miles of dirt had been. It’s kind of deceptive as you are riding sometimes, you don’t realize how much you are climbing. It was a washboard road, too.

Road from the kilns 3077 small

It always surprises me about the vehicles people bring onto these roads – we passed a person in a nice Lexus car coming up that rough road. I wouldn’t drive my nice car on that road! Oh well, maybe they don’t own dirt bikes? (Or want to be in a dirt bike gang?)

Then we got to pavement and romped all the way back to California 190, enjoying all the turns. Even on a dirt bike with knobby tires it was super fun! But then we descended to Stovepipe Wells where it was very hot, near 100° F. I desperately wanted to get back up Daylight Pass to the cooler temperatures of Beatty. Get me out of this heat!, I thought. We had 40 more miles to go.

Once we got back to town, I was glad we’d explored Wildrose Rd. Hal’s choice was a good one. Our total mileage for the day was 170 miles, and my little KLX 250S never even needed the “reserve” fuel position. When I fueled up the next morning, I only took 2.2 gallons of gas. That means the awesome little bike got 77+ miles per gallon! And, it was many more miles than I’d thought we’d ride on our first day of riding on this trip!

Next: an amazing overlook, and an old mine camp