Mojave Desert: Winter Trip #1 Much of Southern California is desert, usually something I would try to avoid rather than seek out. But there is a stark beauty to it that can be enjoyed in the winter. At least in January 2019. In January 1850, it was very different and the groups trying to cross suffered terribly. William Manly's autobiography "Death Valley in '49" was published in 1894, but it is still a captivating read. The worst part of their journey was not Death Valley, but crossing the Mojave desert. The only thing that saved (most of) them from dying of thirst were some puddles and ice from a storm. "Our thirst began to be something terrible to endure. We were so nearly worn out that we tried to eat a little meat, but the mouth would not moisten it enough so we could swallow and we had to reject it. It seemed as if we were going to die with food in our hand because we could not eat it. We talked a little and the burden of it was a fear that we could not endure the terrible thirst a while longer." William Lewis Manly (1894), Death Valley in '49, Ch. 10 I was interested in exploring the Mojave desert, but had no good information on what to do. I have traveled several other deserts on a bicycle over the years, but also had route plans for them. Nothing for the Mojave desert. Steve Walker's Coyote Trail Adventures specializes in offroad motorcycle trips in just that area. I rode my XT225, a small road-legal dirt bike, to Steve's house in Palmdale and loaded it in the van. Lancaster/Palmdale are now substantial cities at the edge of the desert. In 1850, the travelers were still at risk of either starving to death or dying from thirst. Their ordeal only ended after making it to the Santa Clarita valley. "In those days we got no rain, see no living animals of any kind, so not a bird nor insect, see nothing green except a very stunted sage and some dwarf bushes." William Lewis Manly (1894), Death Valley in '49 We had it much easier, starting with a van ride for an hour north with breakfast on the way. In January 1850, Manly and Rogers walked that same distance without water. Then they returned with food, horses, and a mule a week later and finally walked back a third time bringing the Bennett-Arcane group to safety in February. Only the mule made it, the horses died on the route, but all people in the Bennett-Arcane group survived. I think Manly is talking about the stretch from Randsburg to Palmdale here: "There was now before us a particularly bad stretch of the country as it would probably take us four or five days to get over it, and there was only one water hole in the entire distance. This one was quite salty, so much so that on our return trip the horses refused to drink it, and the little white one died the next day." William Lewis Manly (1894), Death Valley in '49, Ch. 11 There are 8 of us on this trip. Steve Walker and John Sides are leading the ride and Steve's brother Charlie drives the support van. Josip is an entertainer from Croatia, where he goes by Jozo Bozo and has carved out a niche as a child magician (Josip took some of the photos in this blogpost). The three As were a contractor from New Jersey (Andrew), a loud Australian (Adam) and a quieter Brit (Andy) from the Bay Area. The three A's seemed to be more motorheads (in the engine enthusiasts sense) than Josip or I. Andrew was also a competitive talker who could not bear silence. As I was looking out of the window imagining how to transverse that terrain without any information about it and without supplies, Andrew talked excitedly how an uncle of a friend of a cousin made his boat engine faster and how the extra speed eviscerated the manhood of a boater who only had a regular engine and was left in the wake. Or something like that. I had my GPS with me and drew this map later Charlie dropped us off south of Randsburg and we started riding the south leg of the map. Day one went up to Trona/Searles Valley where Steve has some cabins up there that serve as a basis. We split the group up for a while, a good idea because 7 people is too big, and the three A's probably wanted to go faster anyway. Josip and I were more interested in seeing the area than in competing who can tear up the most soil and Josip wanted to take more pictures. In the middle of nowhere is the Husky Memorial, a shrine to killed motorcyclists. It started about 30 years when a member of a local club committed suicide and his friends chose to honor him by taking his Husqvarna motorcycle to the desert and setting it in concrete. Over time, additional memorials began appearing and now it is quite a junk yard. While not a permitted official site, the BLM tolerates it and people seem to really care about the site. A desert oddity that is becoming a tourist attraction, maybe because there are no other nearby landmarks. We are staying at some cabins north of Trona. Primitive, but very charming, and really the perfect base for touring this area. A far more luxurious backcountry trip than I do on my own. Panamint Range is the tall range, Death Valley is behind it. I think the front range is called the Slate Range. Picture taken near the cabins where we stayed. The next morning goes across the sandy Searle's valley floor into the Slate Range via Goff Canyon (Isham Canyon is a little north of it, but Isham died in the middle of Searles Valley from dehydration and exhaustion). "At the bottom of the mountain we had several miles of soft and sandy road. A short way out in the sandy valley we pass again the grave of Mr. Isham where he had been buried by his friends. He was a cheerful, pleasant man, and during the forepart of the journey used his fiddle at the evening camps to increase the merriment of his jolly companions." William Lewis Manly (1894), Death Valley in '49, Ch. 11 On the eastern slope, we descend the Slate range in Fish Canyon. Most of the Death Valley 49er groups came up this way to get over the Slate Range, including the Jayhawkers, Manly/Rogers, and finally Manly/Rogers again leading the Bennett and Arcane group. "Just as it was fairly light I went about 200 yards south where the dead body of Mr Fish lay, just as he died more than a month before. The body had not been disturbed and looked quite natural." William Lewis Manly (1894), Death Valley in '49, Ch. 11 At the bottom of Fish Canyon in the Panamint Valley, we turn south to go around the salt marsh/lake. This must have been really painful, being desperate for water and have to make a detour around a lake/swamp that is undrinkable. That was Mr. Fish's last day as he did not make it over the Slate Range. Panamint Valley On the east side of Panamint Valley, we climb up Goler Road to Mengler Pass and into Death Valley. We have a rather unrepresentative cold and rainy day. "Thus we traveled along for hours, never speaking, for we found it much better for our thirst to keep our mouths closed as much as possible, and prevent the evaporation. The dry air of that region took up water as a sponge does. We passed the summit of this ridge without finding water." The Striped Butte is a curious feature. This canyon/valley connects to the main part of Death Valley and may be the only manageable way out directly going west, so this is where Manly/Rogers crossed. The Jayhawkers went much further north, probably Emigrant Pass north of Telescope Peak while Manly/Rogers crossed the Panamint Range south of Telescope Peak. Then the routes converged as the Jayhawkers turned south in the Panamint Valley and all seemed to cross the Slate Range through Fish Canyon (Fish was traveling with the Jayhawkers). Striped Butte We turn around at the geologist cabin near the butte and return the way we came. There is a spring known as anvil springs, named in 1867 by the Bendire expedition that found an anvil, wagon rims, and some old iron scraps. Initially, it was thought that these were tools that Bennett brought into this area, but it is pretty clear from Manly's account (which wasn't published until decades later) that Bennett would not have been in any shape to take his tools this far. The geologist cabin is fairly new, definitely after 1930 (because there are pictures before then that show no cabin), but it isn't entirely clear who started it. Maybe Asa Russell (Panamint Russ) who worked on a claim nearby in the 1930s or maybe some geologists who were there at the same time. Russell lived in the area again after retirement from LA Water and Power in the 1960s. Russell's own account is confusing, the National Park Service website has more on this: Butte area history Asa Russell at the geologist cabin Back in Panamint Valley, we turn north along the salt lake and ride past Ballarat. Around 1900, Ballarat was a real town with several hotels and saloons. Now it is just a few dilapidated buildings and random pieces of junk. Pretty sorry sight even as far as ghost towns are concerned. Day 3: Sunrise at the cabins Day 3 looks pretty from the cabins, but there is a dense fog in the Searle valley. This fog is really cold, really wet, and makes for a few miserable first hours before we get back on higher ground. Of course, "miserable" is relative, compared to how the Death Valley '49s felt here, probably "comfortable" is more appropriate. Once above the fog, it is really fun riding. In fact, probably the most fun riding we have during the trip.