Three days down, three days to go. Out of the mountains, into the wide open spaces of eastern California, as we head ever further southward, straight for Death Valley, and beyond that, our ultimate destination, the glittering, surreal oasis of Las Vegas.
Day 4: Mammoth Lakes to Lone Pine, 163 km
The fourth day of riding dawned bright and sunny as always. We were happy to get a very different start than the previous days: all downhill. In fact, this same ride took less than four hours to accomplish the year before. The mostly downhill nature coupled with a monster tailwind made that day in 2009 a point of happy tale-telling for those privileged to have enjoyed it.
Nic Sims demonstrates the importance of stretching before bike rides. He also has the flexibility of a 12 year old gymnast. Show off.
Going fast never felt so good.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have the same luck in 2010. One could say that Mother Nature provided a stern come uppance to anyone who might have thought we could get away with kilometer thievery two years in a row.
With that said, it should be noted that we got a nearly free ride for the first 65 kilometers of the day. We covered almost the first half of the ride in a little over an hour and a half, enjoying an average speed of just under 40 kmh – almost 25 mph! It was an absolute joy considering the slogs of the first three days.
And then the wind presented herself in all her burly, hairy, warty might, as we entered Bishop and turned into the northern part of the infamous Owens River Valley. I knew nothing of the controversy of the barren landscape we rolled through at the time. Locals call it the Big Quiet, and it’s not hard to imagine where they got that moniker. I don’t know if my experience would allow me to describe the area as the Big Quiet, personally, I think I’d go with the Big Windy, but that’s just me.
The river valley was never a hub of population, but it did at one time harbor a reasonable number of people, complete with a reasonable economy, but when the Owens River was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, the river and the region’s inhabitants dried up. If it were only the Owens River, it might not have been so bad, but the City of Los Angeles purchased (one can make their own opinion of the city’s actions here) nearly all of the water rights in the entire valley – by 1933, the city owned 95% of all of the ranch and farm land in the Owens Valley. The valley died.
I think I like the downhill part the most.
You can thank NASA-man, Randy Berthold, for sparking an interest in this sidebar story. He recommended the book, Cadillac Desert, to learn more about the land through which we were rolling. I still haven’t made it to the book yet, but I’m about to go find it.
It was only in the past four years that water has been directed back into the Owens River, and from what I’ve read, the ecosystem is rebuilding rapidly, not so much the population. I wouldn’t know – all I saw that day was a long, rolling stretch of black asphalt, Sierra Nevada mountain range to my right, the White and Inyo mountains to the left, and all I heard was the deafening roar of one of the most impressive displays of wind I’ve ever seen.
It took us nearly four hours to take care of the remaining 95 kilometers from Bishop to Lone Pine. The desolate, lonely landscape is already harsh from the comfortable confines of a car, and it’s an entirely different brand of awful when you’re caught in a wind storm in it. For some reason though, I liked it. I like the nothingness of eastern California. It’s at once frightening and beautiful. To me.
It’s not just the landscape that’s harsh though – history follows in step with it. The water controversy will always be a sordid, painful part of the region’s history, but the Manzanar War Relocation Center trumps everything. At its height, the camp housed over 10,000 Japanese-Americans and was one of the largest of ten internment camps in America following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We rolled right by that zit on America’s face that day.
History aside, the wind just got worse and worse and worse, and by the end, we were being sandblasted. Evasive measures were taken and the big red vans came to the rescue for the umpteenth occasion on the trip: it was time to motorpace. This wasn’t a typical motorpacing effort though. Usually, when you motorpace, you go really fast, but this time, the motorpacing just allowed for a reasonable pace – I’m talking something over 20 kmh. It was that windy.
I can still hear the wind in this picture.
By the end of the day though, it was by far the best day for both Ashley and myself. Each day, things got a little bit better and better, and that slumbering condition hidden somewhere out of sight, was beginning to show itself again. It felt good to improve.
Nikane’s view of the huddled masses clumping behind the wall of big red van.
It felt even better to get a second straight day in a hotel.
Day 5: Lone Pine to Furnace Creek, 169 km
Following a delicious dip in the swimming pool, another great dinner, and a lot of great conversation, we got a good night’s sleep ahead of the big day to Death Valley.
Doug Emerson demonstrates proper sunscreen appearance when traveling through the desert. There were quite a few ghostly faces trolling the arid eastern California roads that week…
After ample amounts of sunscreen and a kindly donated cycling cap from Randy to protect my poor, pale head from the deathly Death Valley sun, we set off to the most desolate of places. I’ve never seen anything like it. The fifth day of riding made the Owens Valley look like the Los Angeles that it, er, donated its water to. There’s nothing here. It’s a whole bunch of nothingness. I saw a few homes along the road early on, and all I could think of was – who did these poor souls piss off to end up out here?
The early part of the day was pure pleasure – a completely vacant road, perfect temperatures, and more than a little excitement about what was to come – we were riding to Death Valley after all.
With so much time on the bikes, there was more than a little bit of time to, well, pass the time. Nic enjoys another stretch on the go.
The road gently climbed to around a mile over sea level (1580m)…and then the descent started. How does 30km (almost 20 miles) sound? The winding descent was like nothing I’d ever done before. It felt like we were descending into an oven.
Looking down into the oven.
In the oven, but this was the more or less friendly temperatured oven. There was much more fun to come in the heat department over that there yonder ridge: Death Valley.
The views into the dried up Panamint Lake valley bed below are stunning, and with every brake-free bend, the mercury creeps higher, until you hit the final straight run-in to the valley. It felt like it had to be Death Valley already…but it wasn’t. We still had a huge climb and a huge descent to go. This was just a little appetizer, a big, hot, des(s)ert of an appetizer.
The main feature of the day (outside of Death Valley of course) was without question the climb to Towne Pass – 15 kilometers and 1000 meters of ascent, all accompanied by a, well, I just don’t know if it’s possible to write about the desert without saying, merciless sun. The first part, rising up from the dry Panamint Lake is almost perfectly straight. Treeless, shadeless, hot, straight, and steep – that could possibly be the worst combination of ingredients in a climb I can think of.
As always, everyone settled into their own pace, and I settled into an enjoyable march with Ashley. The folks in the big red vans outdid themselves in the 15 kilometer slog to the brim of Death Valley – about halfway up, they started handing out frozen push pops. Do you know how good iced sweetness is when you’re climbing at around 100 degrees? It’s manna.
Many minutes after the climb started, it finished, and the fun began anew. 30 kilometers and almost a mile descent to sea level. Along the way, the turns were few, the elevation signs ample, temperatures hotter and hotter, until 5000 feet, became 4000, then 3000, 2000, 1000, sea level, -100, -200, and the thermometer hit well over 100, almost 110 (43C)!
The last 25 miles passed in the most alien environment I’ve ever had a chance to pedal a bike through. I couldn’t help but wondering what it must have been like to walk or ride a horse across that expanse during the California Gold Rush in 1849. Interestingly, there was only one recorded death during that time in Death Valley. I was amazed when I learned that number, and even more surprised to find that a Native American tribe, the Timbisha, have inhabited the seemingly uninhabitable valley for over 1000 years. Giving new meaning to the word flahute.
Unfortunately, like most things concerning Native Americans in the US, they lost their home, (later than most, but lost it nonetheless), in 1933 to Herbert Hoover, when he created the Death Valley National Monument. Unsuccessful attempts to find a new home for the homeless natives in the 1930’s followed, but eventually, when no home was found, they returned. Unfortunately, their new home, which would seem to have been completely unappetizing to the rest of the world, was a teeny bit smaller than their previous incredibly large backyard: a 40 acre settlement near the national park headquarters in Furnace Creek.
If the Timbisha living for over a millenium in Death Valley wasn’t impressive enough, borax miners in the 1880’s managed to not only stay alive and mine a bunch of borax, but also got it OUT of Death Valley. They hauled out 20 million tons of borax in six years of operation of the famed twenty-mule teams: 18 mules and two horses, attached to two wagons full of borax and a third filled with water and supplies – a whole lot of water. The journey to the railroad depot from Death Valley was about 160 miles each way, through, well, through the lands that we were nervously riding through with more than ample supplies. There’s just something about Death Valley that seems to scream – stay on the road, stay close to water, I’ll eat you if you stray.
In other news, it was really hot in the Valley. Oven hot. You know when people talk about it feeling ‘like an oven’? Death Valley really is just like that. The unique geographic situation of the valley – far below sea level, surrounded by mountains, well, long story short, allows the area to become a natural convection oven, and it feels a lot like reaching into your oven to tend to your cooking dinner. Except in this case, you’re in the oven.
The new Specialized Purist bottles were used to their fullest by all during the trip – and we found them to be pretty much the best bottle ever. Seriously, check them out. They’re not cheap, but they are miracle bottles.
Once again, the big red van crew was unstoppable. They lined up feed zone style every few miles, so we had a continuous supply of bottles, ice, and other yummy goodies coming our way the whole way to Furnace Creek. It was probably the most comfortable voyage through the long dried Lake Manly. Well, you would assume that it has been dry for thousands of years, but it was actually last a lake back in 2005 following a particularly wet spring. Two feet at its deepest and 100 square miles at its peak, it wasn’t long before it was back to desert. Underneath though, there will always be water – Death Valley sits atop one of the world’s largest aquifers. Funny that.
And I digressed again.
My apologies. In short, it was hot. In long, we were hassled by a bored Barney Fife park ranger, who decided we needed to ride single file on the completely unused road. In our 25 miles between entering the park and our nighttime residence in Furnace Creek, we saw a grand total of maybe five cars. We were a terrible inconvenience I’m sure. I guess it goes to show that bike riders aren’t safe from the long arm of ridiculous people no matter where we go.
The old adage is that the mechanic’s work is never done. It appears the adage is in fact true. There was no questioning its veracity each night, as the mechanics made sure everything would be in perfect running order come the next morning. Thanks so much!
Day 6: Furnace Creek to Pahrump, Nevada, 120 km
And on the final day, there was only the ride to Pahrump to go. Pahrump might be one of the funniest sounding town names I’ve heard in a long while. The theoretical stopping point for the ride is the Dirt Demo just outside of Las Vegas, but the ride from Pahrump, Nevada to Las Vegas, is well, not terribly friendly.
Does it get much better than this?
The first part was heaven though. A long, nicely graded climb back to over 3000 feet in elevation to leave Death Valley behind. The early morning views (we left quite early) were gorgeous, and the heat was just about, well, perfect.
I got the big call up to the varsity team to do the big ride to Las Vegas. Most of the group would stop in Pahrump and get shuttled to just a little ways out from Dirt Demo, then ride in. A few hearty denizens wanted to go big one last time and do the whole ride, a bit more than 200 km. There were five of us that committed to the big ride, and well, only three made it. I wasn’t one of them.
After hitting the top of the day’s long climb, we hitched on to the back of our support van, captained by Nancy Larocque and photographed from by Michael Robertson, for some easy miles in the draft. I very much liked this part of the ride.
I wish there were a long story why I stopped to take a nap in Pahrump, but it basically came down to the fact that my knee rebelled, and I couldn’t pedal anymore. Luckily for me, we had just made it to Pahrump, and the rest of the group would be following in not too many minutes to Pahrump (How many times can I include this odd sounding word?).
Behind, Ashley enjoyed her final day. Here, she is talking to the host of the Amazing Race and a, wait for it, amazing guy, Phil Keoghan.
So I laid down in the shade under the awning of a farm supply store in Pahrump, and promptly fell asleep. I awoke to see two Leadville 100 riders pahrumping by, one had set the women’s record only a little while before (Rebecca Rusch) and the other, well, he was fast and tough too, Dan. I hopped up, got on my bike, learned that everyone would meet a bit further down the road, and finished up the last bit of pedaling to to the proper meeting place down by a grocery store on the outskirts of town.
Do you know how weird it is to walk into a grocery store after almost a week of lonely furrow plowings in the great expanses of nothingness in California? Surreal just doesn’t quite cut it.
We made it!
When everyone arrived, we piled into the big red vans together, motored down the road a fair piece, hopped out just outside of Vegas, met up with the three valiant riders who rode the whole route (I sheepishly offered congratulations, seriously bummed to miss out on the adventure after swearing I was happy not to have to do the whole thing), and then we all took off together for our final few minutes as a group.
A happy Randy. Thanks for the hat!
I was sad to realize that this would be our final little bit of riding together, and as we rode up through the chaos of Dirt Demo, it occurred to me that it was over. There were celebrations and happy happyings, and I was certainly happy too, but I didn’t want it to end. This was too much fun. All I could think of was – wouldn’t it be cool if we just kept on going? We’ve made it this far, let’s go for Georgia!
Mike Sinyard and his son, Anthony. There wasn’t a non-smiling face anywhere.
Alas, the road ended in Vegas. There were still a few eye opening moments to be had though. If I thought the grocery store experience was a bit off putting, can you imagine my eyes when we drove back into Vegas to the Wynn hotel? Mind you, we were still in our kits, still clop, clop, clopping around like horses in our bike shoes, and there we were in the luxurious interior of the Wynn. It wasn’t all that long ago that we were bathing in a high Sierra creek, and now, here we were at the Wynn? It was crazy, but the crazy turned to fantastic when we strolled into our beautiful room, enjoyed our beautiful shower, an amazing dinner, and a deep, deep sleep to cap off a week we’ll never forget.
Before we started, we were warned that the ride would be a ‘life changing experience.’ We both shrugged off that notion, but looking back, I can’t help but think that it was.
Indeed, at the end of the nearly 700 mile journey from oceanside to nearly 10,000 feet to more than 200 feet below sea level, from warm, to freezing Sierras cold, to Death Valley roasting, it was nothing short of an experience, and it’s greatness even allows the heady claim of life changing. The people we met, the friends we made, the roads traveled, the cause for which we rode. It was a beautiful thing. I look at things a bit differently now. I think that big ideas are a little less unlikely, a little more possible. I know that my body can handle so much more than I ever thought it could, and so does Ashley. Most importantly though, we can look back at the amazing friends we made along the way, and that’s something that already has, and will continue to change our life.
Thanks, thanks so much for everything.
That’s not such a bad way to spend a honeymoon, is it?
Of course, big thanks goes to Specialized for giving us the opportunity to take part on such a great ride. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
The next set of big thanks goes to Michael Robertson of VeloDramatic.com for the privilege to post some of his wonderful shots from the ride. Thanks, Michael!
Western Spirit specializes in cycling adventures, and they took care of us in amazing ways. The infrastructure, the food, the support they provided was nothing short of perfect. Thanks!
And finally, as always, check out our Flickr page for much more!