The Wind Cried Harry
Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past
Standing on the edge of Ubehebe Crater was next to impossible. I thought my motorcycle was going to get blown over. Sand ripped at my flesh with each gust. I had an awful feeling about the next 60 miles of riding. What did they not understand about the forecast? When words like “damaging” and “hurricane force” are connected with wind I take note. Why didn’t this message get through?
So far we had lucked out. It was blowing hard in Lone Pine before starting the ride. Out the back way on the Narrow Gauge Road we ran into a stiff crosswind, then a herd of cattle being driven right up the road. When I got right in the middle of the pack, revving the engine and beeping the horn to get them out of my way, a cowboy on horseback came riding up, obviously upset with me. He wore a pair of goggles and fought the gusts while yelling at me to “go home and come back in a half hour.” I motioned towards the dirt shoulder and pulled off the road where a short standoff with a calf had me laughing out loud. The dust was thick; I could taste it.
A hundred years ago the city of Los Angeles began diverting water out of the Owens Valley. In doing so they dried up a huge lake, Owens Lake, a sink that had no natural outlet. This created the largest source of particulate matter pollution in the country when the wind blows. It took years and years of stalling, court orders and fines for the Department of Water and Power to finally address the issue and do something about it. Now they are at it again. While the situation has gotten better, on days like the one we rode through you would have a hard time telling.
Sand drifted over the highway as we neared Keeler, a once prosperous town that barely manages to stay alive along the old lakeshore. One of a few ghost towns that still cling to life, Keeler is in the cross hairs of the dusty winds that pummel the region, especially in the spring. Rumors of cancer clusters can be heard from locals and it’s no wonder, the town sees many days where the dust hazards are very real. New sand dunes are forming right at the edge of town.
It wasn’t long before we climbed up the Yellow Grade, up towards the old silver mining town of Cerro Gordo – that’s Spanish for “Fat Hill”. An old hotel is still in operation, or partial operation way up at 9,000 feet on the crest of the Inyo Range. The mine was first discovered in 1865 and proved to be the biggest silver and lead producer in California. Many old buildings and equipment remain at the site, but it was cold and blustery the day we rode through, enough so that we barely made a stop.
I was riding again with my good friend Kevin. We have known each other for close to fifteen years and have shared many adventures together, mostly on two wheels but several business trips too. He also came to stay with me after both hip replacement surgeries which I am forever grateful. Trips on both sides of the Sierra Nevada, in Baja and South America, across Oregon and the North Coast of California have built up our friendship through shared adversity and joy. When we did the Oregon/Nor Cal trip last summer Kevin’s father Pat joined us and drove a support vehicle. Pat and his friend Harry hatched a plan for a Death Valley adventure and the four of us got our monies worth!
In fact the trip was originally scheduled for the previous weekend but the weather was cold and windy and at the last minute we postponed for a week. When I heard the NOAA forecast a few days before the second weekend I sent notice to Kevin who passed it on to everyone else. In his words the old guys were about to pop with excitement for getting out on a ride again and he didn’t think they would be willing to push it back another week. I felt everyone should at least understand what we were getting ourselves into and needed to express my concerns.
There was more to be concerned about than just the skies. Pat had recently purchased a new Suzuki dual sport bike but had hardly ridden it. He hadn’t been riding in a few years and when his buddy Harry saw the bike he decided to get one too. Harry hadn’t ridden in five years. Both of them are in their seventies, but they have also been riding and racing dirt bikes since the 1960’s. I had never ridden with either of them and Harry kept pushing for a ride that would take us deep into the wilderness of the desert. I was cautious but excited about seeing some new terrain.
more to come...
Any more info on the hotel in Cerro Gordo?
Nevermind, would have helped if I spelled it right the first time I searched.
^ sorry the hyperlinks aren't working, fixed it
Up and over the top of Cerro Gordo we went. I thought there might be snow up high but it turned out to be dry. The decent into San Lucas Canyon was gravely and long, dropping 5,000 feet in ten miles or so. We all got down without too much difficulty and before long it was smooth sailing out to the Saline Valley Road.
At this point another decision was pending; we could ride back to pavement and take an easy stroll to Beatty, NV for the night, stopping in Panamint Springs to visit with a group ride from the ADVRider website or head deeper into the wilderness and cross over Hunter Mountain, on to Teakettle Junction and out to Ubehebe Crater where the pavement began again. It would be a long dirt run and I wasn’t sure if there would be snow, mud, silt, or exhausted veteran riders to contend with. Since I had never been over Hunter Mountain, the wind had eased and the guys looked up for the challenge it seemed we might have a shot at making it.
100 years of dirt biking experience
As it turned out, Hunter Mountain was a fantastic ride. The mud was minimally difficult; the silt barely gave us a stir and the wind held back. We met a few of the ADVRiders along the way while stopped for lunch. I had made some cold pressed chicken sandwiches, one for each of us. They consisted of thin slabs of chicken breast that I had marinated, grilled and refrigerated over night. In the morning I took some sandwich rolls from the bakery at the supermarket, sliced them, drizzled a bit of vinaigrette, stacked up provolone cheese, chicken, roasted red peppers and bitter greens. Wrapping them tight in a plastic bag, then in foil. I placed them in the fridge with a cutting board on top, loading up two big cast iron skillets on top of that and pressed them for an hour so. Nobody knew they were coming and it proved to be a big hit, my best meal of the trip.
san lucas way
By the time we reached Teakettle Junction the wind was back. We still had over 20 mile of dirt left but I felt better since this road was much more traveled from here out and we would not be quite so far from help. The down side to higher traffic is washboards. Chatter boards, rattling little depressions in the roadbed that either need to be ridden slowly in and out of the waves or at high speed to skip over the tops of the dips. We tried to keep up the speed but it was nerve wracking and a bit torturous on the way out.
Finally the pavement appeared, we had made a great crossing though some desolate territory and everyone had survived, no spills, no flats, no trouble. But the wind was blasting. At Ubehebe Crater I could barely stand up it was gusting so hard. We didn’t stick around long, actually Harry headed down to look for cover. Our next stop was Scotty's Castle where the canyon created a bit of a break from the wind; the visitor center called and we took shelter. It was nice to get inside and have a seat.
http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-s4zllifWaK...o+%2526+po.jpgThe remaining 60 miles were all paved, first out to Scotty’s Junction with a screaming cross wind and near white out dust and blowing sand, then into a head wind on Hwy 95 with trucks and motor homes tacking into the breeze like sailing ships charting the open ocean. Our pace was slow, 55 mph was about the average and it took a toll on all of us. When we finally pulled into the Motel 6 in Beatty Harry looked whooped, I was glad to be off the road.
At the visitor center I had asked about good food in town and was told to hit up the Sourdough Saloon for pizza and local color. Tired bones prevailed and it was a walk across the parking lot to the Casino for slow service and, well, Denny’s. So much for writing home about the food in Beatty as we had breakfast there the next day too.
stay tuned for day 2 next...
It was cool in the morning but the wind was not as harsh. A few miles down the road is the ghost town of Rhyolite, definitely worth a visit for the bizarre artwork alone. From there it was off to Titus Canyon. Titus Canyon is one of the most interesting dirt roads anywhere in the park, perhaps the country. It takes a while to get into the canyon proper but it is a geological marvel and should not be missed. It took me 20 years living in the region to finally make a trip down canyon and after doing so I said I could make it an annual event without getting bored.
At the bottom of the canyon we dropped out into Death Valley proper for the first time on the trip. The park is massive and contains lots of terrain that is not in the valley itself. Actually it’s the largest national park outside of Alaska. A raging sand storm was blowing across the valley. Once through the canyon we parted ways, Pat and Harry headed back to Lone Pine on pavement while Kevin and I turned north for the Death Valley Road, a dirt run that goes from Ubehebe Crater back to Big Pine.
The first 25 miles of dirt was a smooth as silk and we bombed along at 55-60 mph. I have never seen the road in such good condition. At one point Kevin was out ahead and the scene filled me with awe. I knew he was traveling at close to 60 mph but in the vast desert landscape it looked like he was standing still. We passed Crankshaft Crossing, over the Last Chance Range and dropped into Eureka Valley. It never really warmed up the whole day, another sandstorm raged on the far side of the valley.
http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-8bgC01kzzT...ureka+road.jpgStopping to layer up for warmth in Joshua Flats Kevin confided that he didn’t really understand what I’ve been saying for years about the riding in this region. He had no idea how grand a place it really is and plans to do some more exploring this summer. We stopped up top of the Inyo Range at the Saline Valley Road intersection and talked with a couple of Big Pine locals who had been out four wheeling and exploring. The long hill down to Big Pine is one of the finest paved roads around and it warmed up as we lost elevation.
owens valley - photo by ko
Back at the house in Bishop we cleaned up a bit, loaded Kevin’s bike into his van and had a couple beers to celebrate the adventure. He went off to Mahogany Smoke Meats for a sandwich and bacon, and then drove up to Lake Tahoe for the night. I began downloading photos and was rather impressed by some of the images I managed to capture. It was nice be inside and warm, without the constant rumbling of the wind.
I wondered how the old timers had fared and secretly thanked them for pushing our limits of comfort and desire.
titus canyon - photo by ko
NIce pictures and good writin'. Thanks for the ride-a-long report.
^ thanks, there will be more to come...
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