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

Black velvet

In the darkness of the parked car, I quietly loaded the CD into the stereo. It took a few moments to load, and then the song came up. I closed my eyes and when the first verse started, I breathed the lyrics into the music. Everything around me ceased to exist. My voice was unwilling; I hadn’t sung in a long time. I enjoyed it by myself in the privacy of my car. Fade to black.

The song was Black Velvet, sung by Alannah Myles, and for the last few days it had been stuck in my head. It was all the fault of Goodwill. While I was there shopping one day last week, the song came on, and suddenly I stopped moving, listening, remembering it, pulling the lyrics from the deep weeds of the pond that holds all the song lyrics I know. It was an effort, but I remembered most of them. The song is old, from the late 1980s, but it is no less seductive now than it was then.

It is a pulsating song, and I felt the heartbeat, the life of it. The heat, both physical and virtual pressed into my skin. In my mind I watched the colors shift from the brown mire of mud, the orange of the setting sun, to the blueness of “the blues,” to the black of the title. It’s a magical song, and one that pulls me into it every time I hear it. It tells the story of Elvis and the musical revolution he caused, then ends with regret that he was gone so quickly.

Little did anyone know back then how far-reaching his influence would be, nor could they predict the depth of his legacy.

In the dark of my car, I was one small person who had become part of the music as I wove myself into a night made of black velvet.

Musical terms “explained”

Thoughts and imagination run wild sometimes while I am sitting at the keyboard taking a break for a few minutes. Here is how I interpreted these notes and instructions:

Run! (haltingly, though):

Run faster (right hand):

Pause, have a sip of coffee, continue (first time through); you’re done! (second time through):

Express yourself! (really, express what the composer wants you to):

P.S. I love being able to play the piano!

The flow of music

Inside a house in an anonymous suburb of the city, a woman sat down at the piano. It had been a long day at work, and as she sat there it was like sinking into a warm bath. She touched the keys lightly, they made a greeting sound as if the piano were happy that it was time to play.

She caressed the keyboard, and the keys under her right hand made a liquid sound as the music ran up the scale. Soon the flow of music closed over her head and she was engulfed by it.

She let it flow slowly at first, not playing up to tempo. She was exploring an unfamiliar sonata. The freshness of it was intriguing; there were new sounds to please her ears. Then, she picked up a favorite piece. Melodious now, the music became the quick flow preceding a waterfall, it ran, rose and fell.

The musician played until the stress and grief of the day left her mind and fingers. Eventually, she climbed out of the blue depths of music, returning when she finally felt hungry, realizing that several hours had passed since she’d sat down. She emerged, the music notes still clinging to her as they played in her head.

She was clean now, content. She struck the bass keys, let the sound sink, diminish into a distant final chord. The heavy stones of the day’s burdens dropped into the depths of the pool, forgotten.

Everything’s black and white

One of the many things I love about playing the piano is that there is no guessing. When you hit the key, it produces a note. You don’t have to worry about if it is “right on,”  if it’s in tune, unless several years have passed without the piano being tuned. When you press the key, you can tell right away if it’s the right note. It’s immediate aural feedback. There is no wandering aimlessly up and down the strings, like with the violin.

Lately, I have been digging out old piano music books, some of which I haven’t really looked at for many years. What seemed so difficult before is now “doable.” I am not great, but at least I can play the music with relative ease. You would laugh if I told what music it is (old movies that shall remain nameless because from this modern perspective they seem quaint and cheesy). I still mainly play classical music, but once in a while I need a break from it, just like on the violin. Also like the violin, I have my current challenge, and that, at the moment, is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Almost everything seems easy after that.

Tonight I loved that it was stormy outside, the rain falling steadily around the house, thunder booming occasionally, the wind kicking up in spurts and gusts. Inside, warm and dry, I made the piano growl, then thunder. I picked some notes in a sonata that I was working on, notes that sounded like the rain outside, let them chase themselves up and down the keyboard under my dancing fingers. I was lost in that world for a while until I finally came to and realized 45 minutes had passed. (I should have started dinner long ago.)

So, I reluctantly pushed myself away from the keyboard and vowed to return tomorrow. At least this week is spring break, and I will have plenty of opportunities to revisit that warm happy place of relief.

And I don’t even care who hears me.

“Zumba® fitness,” and corporate parrots

Above: I only own this bracelet because someone gave it to me

Wow, I must be so ready to move on in so many ways. I can hardly even stand my workouts anymore. I think the jolt to something new was Thursday afternoon when I got to do the hip hop aerobics workout.

The point is, I loved that workout. It make me think how much I really don’t have much feeling either way for the Zumba® craze anymore. I like the dancing, as long as it isn’t so complicated you can’t even get a workout, but the music doesn’t do much for me. It doesn’t give me the excitement and compulsion to move like some music does. Plus, speaking of music, I don’t like how on almost every official Zumba® song (which is all of them), in the background someone says “Zumba® fitness!” over and over, like subliminal mind control.

I refuse to buy into it. Every piece of clothing with the name Zumba® on it is so outrageously expensive, it’s unbelievable. Every DVD, every bit of music, is as well. And, if you dare to ask if there is some way to watch a video of the routine so you can learn it outside of class, it’s like a state secret. No one will give it to you. Highly classified, apparently. And god forbid if you should use the word “zumba” without the little ® on it.  The Zumba® thing is so highly controlled and profit-driven, I am surprised no one has noticed. It’s the “emperor’s new clothes” syndrome, as I always say. Everyone probably sees it, but refuses to acknowledge it.

I like the hip hop dancing because it’s been around for a long time, it’s just hip hop, and it’s aerobics routines set to the kind of music that inspires hip hop dancing. You know, like the concept of “aerobics” started out to be in the 1980s.  It hooked me then, it does now. The kind of music for hip hop aerobics workouts  is mostly rap, and that is funny because I usually don’t like it too much in other contexts. I don’t like all the cuss words. But I love to move to it. It’s not that I especially have a choice, I have to move to it. I sit there and twitch until I can’t stand it anymore, then I have to get up and move. That is how you tell what is good music, in my opinion.

So, today, tired of the Zumba® fitness thing, I asked a manager at my gym if we could get some hip hop aerobics classes. He said, “well, everything is so corporate-ish now. We just got Zumba®.” As if that was an acceptable explanation. It was a plausible one, yes, but not an acceptable one. They used to call the classes “Latin” classes or something, but then they had to pay to use the concept and were allowed to use the name Zumba®. Anyway, that is how it is at that gym now, everything is  “corporate corporate corporate corporate corporate corporate corporate corporate corporate …” The workers there are like parrots whenever you ask them anything. Their responses always begin, “Corporate says that …” I wish they would get back to being the neighborhood gym, controlled by the people who use it, which is how it started out over 10 years ago. It was much better then, in my opinion. We had much more fun.

So, I guess I will buy myself a hip hop DVD on Amazon and work out with that a few times a week until the gym gets a clue. Maybe “corporate” will see how unnecessarily expensive the Zumba® licensing is and give it up for something more fun, like hip hop dancing.


I am sorry to say that my kids finally sneezed and coughed on me, then blew their noses and touched everything around me, so I finally succumbed to sickness. I am not happy about that, but that’s what happens this time of year, and I am sure I will be over it soon.

Tonight I did make time to practice my violin, though, even though standing there playing was making me tired by the end. I don’t think I sounded that good, and about halfway through I had to re-tune my E string because it got sharper as the room became warmer (I had the space heater on).

Normally when I practice, I feel like I unravel the skeins of music, take apart each strand and work on it note by note, then knit it all back together into recognizable music at the end. I wasn’t quite as diligent and meticulous tonight as I usually am, but at least I did work.

Currently, I am resting, drinking green tea, and hoping for the best tomorrow. I am sure I will be over this soon and able to make some progress on my music again!