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Death Valley

April 19, 2019

I haven't posted anything in a very long time. When I first started writing it was solely to share my experiences with other people, with the intent of inspiring them to get out there and do it themselves. Unfortunately I got wrapped up in it a bit too much and it started to become about money. When I started doing van conversions, I quickly realized it was draining me of my passion. I brought everything to an abrupt halt a few years back and completely changed directions. I've never been good at making things about money. I hate it. I'm happiest with a tent and sleeping bag in the middle of nowhere. 


I'm fortunate now though to have a job I enjoy thoroughly that lets me disappear to go on my little adventures. This blog is merely to recount my experiences and hopefully stoke some people out. Maybe down the road I'll make some t-shirts and lose money on them. Always remember, "Buy high, sell low."




I took a trip to Death Valley for the first time in my van a few months back and was blown away. I only went down for a couple days, but that was enough to peak my interest and have me itching to go back. Unfortunately right after that winter hit California and it was rainy and gross for months to come. Spring has finally sprung though so I saddled up the trusty old KLR and scooted back down to the desert.


I not disappointed.





I'd gotten most everything ready the night before, so morning of I'm fully packed, fed, and on the road by about 10am. I used to get super anxious the morning of a trip, a strange uneasiness that would slowly subside as I settled into a groove. On the motorcycle though I've grown increasingly comfortable and confident. I have zero uneasiness as I saddle up, it feels like any other day and I'm nothing but stoked to be heading out for an adventure on the bike.


I figure it'll take me about 6 hours including stops to get to Death Valley. I'm not even sure where I'll be camping tonight but I know I need to stop in Panamint Springs for gas, so I figure I'll see how I'm feeling when I get there and make some decisions. I'm not sure if I'm a very good traveler, I'm terrible at planning and tend to make extremely rash, last minute decisions. I feel like planning too much only sets you up for disappointment, whereas if you don't even know where you'll be sleeping that night, there's nowhere to go but up. Maybe that makes me a good traveler, who knows..


The ride down goes super smooth. I'm feeling really good on the bike and settling in nicely. When I first started riding a lot it would be hard to get comfortable. My back would ache, I'd get a cramp in my leg, it just felt awkward. Over time though the KLR and I have made our peace and I can ride for hours on end without a care in the world.


That is until I hear a loud POP and suddenly the sound of my exhaust becomes at least twice as loud.. 


I immediately pull over to inspect and I'm not all that surprised to see a giant hole in my muffler. I'd had a crack forming in it for awhile but always thought I'd deal with it later. Guess it's time to deal with it.


So here we are, a mere 20 miles from my destination and 280 miles from home and I've got a massive hole in my exhaust and half my side plastic has quite literally melted away.




I debate for a hot second turning back, but either way I'll have to ride almost 300 miles just to get home so I decide priority one is making sure nothing else will get damaged. I have an aluminum heat shield hose clamped onto the exhaust, which is the only thing that kept my bag from getting completely scorched. I let everything cool down and reposition the heat shield so it's facing the opposite direction and wedge it underneath what's left of my side plastic. I also move my bags as far forward on the seat as they'll go, which seems to be enough to keep them away from the heat coming out of the massive hole in my muffler. 


Nailed it.


Once I was (relatively) sure nothing else was going to melt off my bike, I saddled back up and trudged on. I'm a lot of things, but I'm no quitter.


I make it to Panamint Springs around 3pm and gas up. Before I left home I had downloaded GPS tracks from ADV Pulse that did a huge figure 8 through most of Death Valley. I didn't plan on following the exact route, but it was good to use as a reference and I was super stoked they were kind enough to give the tracks away free of charge (shoutout to ADV Pulse). 


I have a Garmin Montana GPS unit with a mount hardwired directly to my bike's battery so it will charge while I ride. It was not a cheap investment, but I have never once regretted it. Having turn by turn directions and full maps available at all times has been invaluable. I always carry an actual map with me if I am adventuring off road in case the GPS has any issues, but so far it has worked flawlessly. 


I pull up the tracks I loaded before leaving and see whereabouts I am in relation to connecting a route the following day. It seems like I can pull over and camp just about anywhere, so I decide to just start riding till a spot catches my eye. From Panamint there's a loop that goes by some old mining cabins and hopefully had some spots to camp, I load the route on the GPS and set out. Only a couple miles outside of Panamint the route takes a sharp right turn and dumps you onto a dirt road. Epic. This is what I came down here to do. I air down, swap my face shield for some goggles, and set off.


The road is pretty mellow for a couple miles then turns into more technical doubletrack with areas of deep sand and lots of rocks, essentially following a riverbed. I'm having a hard time controlling the bike, it keeps trying to dig into the sand and shoot me off the side of the trail. I eventually make it through most of the sand though and the trail starts climbing up into a canyon though more rocky doubletrack. The view coming up out of the valley and into the canyon is unreal.


The stoke is rising.


After around 8 miles I come to an old cabin that used to be a mining site. I explore around a bit and realize the cabin is a kind of pit stop for travelers, with an established campsite and everything. This'll definitely do for the night. After unloading my gear and pitching my tent, I look around a bit more and realize there's a full stash of cut firewood and a fire ring. Epic. I make dinner, explore around a bit more, then build a fire. I find a beer can someone had left behind and was able to cut it into a makeshift heat shield for my exhaust, redirecting some of the heat that was going towards my side bags. Surprisingly, it actually seemed to help.


Only a few minutes after dark my eyelids grow heavy with the weight of the day. Holy smokes I'm tired. It's only around 8pm, but I put out the fire and call it a night.


I sleep like a champion that night, waking well past sunrise (which is unusual for me). I arise lazily to an incredible view of the sunlit valley below me. The cabin is kind of perched on a ledge overlooking a big valley, with the entrance to a massive canyon to the side of it. After making coffee and breakfast I break down camp and get changed. As I'm strapping down the last few pieces of gear, I hear the familiar "bup bup bup" of a small 4 stroke engine coming up towards the cabin. 3 guys pull up riding smaller dual sport bikes, they have a base camp in Panamint Springs.


"Hey, Mornin"


"Morning!" Takes a long, scrupulous look at my KLR.. "How'd you get up here?"


"Same way you did, I presume. Up that doubletrack coming in from Panamint."


He looks at the bike again and seems to be evaluating something..


"On THAT thing??"


"Haha, yessir. She rides better than she looks."


Turns to his friend, "Hey Steve! This guy rode that thing up here, can you believe that??"


Other guys looks me and then the bike up and down.


"Good rider," as he nods with approval.


Seems I've unknowingly been initiated into the crew. Sick. 


As we're all standing around and I'm getting ready to leave when another guy pulls up in a truck and asks if the guy on the yellow bike is with us, he couldn't make it through the rocks and is just standing on the side of the trail. Turns out he is with the other 3 guys but they don't seem surprised and say they'll go back for him shortly. Truck guy then looks at me, 


"You with that other group of adventure bikers?"


"No sir, haven't seen them."


"Ah, well they came through here yesterday on those big ol' bikes and were having a hell of a time getting by."


Dang, I had definitely struggled a bit yesterday getting through the sand, but I had just chalked it up to fatigue after being in the saddle for close to 8 hours. Makes me feel a little better knowing I wasn't the only one having a hard time.


After saying our goodbyes and good lucks, I get back on the bike and head out of camp. I'm still not sure where I want to go that day, so I decide to head into Stovepipe Wells inside the park and make a plan there, which entails going back through the doubletrack I came in on. If we're being honest, I'm also a bit curious how hard the ride in actually was. With a stomach full of food, fresh coffee, and a good night's sleep, I breeze through the doubletrack back into Panamint like it was nothing. I think coming in the day before I had been a lot more tired than I realized, I'm glad I had decided to set up camp early and not try to push on. 


I stop at Stovepipe, resupply, and decide to take a route south that loops back into Panamint. I take my time riding throughout the day, stopping often to explore areas and take photos. One nice thing about traveling alone is you don't have to converse with anybody when making a decision, you just stop when you feel like stopping or make a random turn down a different road, it's rather freeing. 


In the afternoon I stop at a geologists cabin that overlooks a huge valley. I went to grab my waterbottle that I keep strapped to the outside of my bags and it's nowhere to be found. Shit. I was carrying exactly 6 liters of water, 4 of it the packed away and one 2 liter bottle on the outside for easier access. It seems after taking photos awhile ago I forgot to strap it back down properly. Being suddenly down 2 liters of water while in the middle of the desert isn't really ideal. I had planned on camping somewhere along this route today, but decide it wouldn't be wise to stay out here alone while rationing water. I was already burning through what I had left trying to stay hydrated in the high temps. 


I look at my gps and realize the route drops me back onto the 190 for a bit, which is the road that leads in and out of Death Valley on the West side. I decide to get to that junction then figure out what to do. It's towards the end of the route, so I still have quite a few miles ahead of me.


The riding for the next few hours is a lot slower than earlier in the day, as it's more technical and requires a lot more concentration. I'm feeling super confident on the bike though, the KLR never ceases to amaze me at how much you can throw at it. If you stay on the throttle and trust the bike, it'll get you though just about anything. There's only two sections I come to that have me actually questioning if I'll make it by. Both of them are short, steep waterfall rock sections. One going down, one going up. Both of them I slow to a crawl and examine my line choices. Having raced and ridden mountain bikes for many years, I feel my ability to make split second decisions is razor sharp. Both sections I clear with relative ease and continue on my way. It's always a reminder though when in the middle of nowhere alone that you never know what the trail is going to throw at you. After having dropped a water bottle and being 3/4 of the way through my day, it would not have been ideal to have to turn back (or crash)..


The last leg of the day is on a wide open road leading to Ballarat, a small town in the middle of nowhere. I stop to look around for a bit, but it's creeping on 5pm and I still have to figure out where I'm going camp tonight. I get back to the 190 in a half hour or so and decide to head into Stovepipe Wells. It's not ideal, but there's some cheap campsites there and it being the middle of the week, I doubt there will be many other people. It will also give me a chance to resupply and get more gas. 


I get to Stovepipe just before 7pm and find a nice campsite tucked away in a corner. Just as expected, there aren't many other people around and it's a nice, quiet night. I find I actually have a bit of cell service, so I take the opportunity to check in and upload a few photos. I also take advantage of the bathroom facility and wash some of my clothes. No matter how long I'm traveling for, I always carry 2 pairs of underwear, 2 pairs of socks, and a small bottle of camp suds to alternate washing them. A fresh pair of socks and underwear can make a world of difference when you haven't showered in days..


The next morning I get up early, as there is no shade here and I know from experience that the desert sun can be rather unforgiving. I pack up camp while eating breakfast and decide to head for Titus Canyon, as it's been on the bucket list since the last time I came to the park and it's supposed to be pretty amazing. With everything on the bike I stop at the general store to fill up my water bottles at a nearby fountain. As I'm strapping everything down a gentleman walks up to me and starts eyeing my bike,


"Well this thing sure looks like fun."


"Heck yeah man, I love this bike."


"Do you carry a spare?"


I look at the bike, then at him, then back at the bike.. "A spare what?"


"A spare tire."


I look back at the bike which has just about everything I could possibly carry already strapped to it (and quite clearly no spare tire), "No man, no spare.."


"Ah, well, I ride a Vespa and I *always* carry a spare tire." 


I consider asking the guy if he carries the tools to put the spare on should he get a flat, but decide I'd rather not engage further..


"That's cool man, hopefully I don't need one I guess."


"Well you never know, with all the rocks and stuff out there, would be smart to carry a spare."


"Totally, I'll look into it," I say, kind of laughing.


He seems pleased by my answer and saunters off, leaving me to pack up my stuff and get outta dodge.


The people you meet out on the road are always fun and interesting. Something about the motorcycle really draws them in, it's like an immediate icebreaker. I've only ever had positive interactions with people, I think there's something about traveling in such a rugged fashion that people, be it conscious or not, have a certain level of respect and admiration for. It takes a certain amount of bravery to set out into the unknown alone on two wheels, people seem to really respect it. Makes for good conversation at least.


Titus Canyon ends up being much more mellow than I had expected, really just a long, groomed dirt road. I stop a number of times to take in the beauty of it and snap some photos, as the giant canyon walls are breathtaking. In the middle of the canyon there's an old ghost town called Leadfield that at one time prospered, it even had it's own post office. I am blown away that people willingly moved into the harsh climate of Death Valley to try and start a life, it seems simply impossible to thrive out here.


After leaving Titus Canyon I still have a lot of time left in the day so I decide to follow a friend of mine's recommendation and head to nearby Alabama Hills recreation area to spend the night. It's an OHV area just outside of Lone Pine and I've heard amazing things about it. On the ride there though the wind starts to pick up something fierce. At one point I could barely see the road because the wind was blowing sand into it from seemingly both sides and I was riding at a 45 degree angle just to keep from being blown away. I consider turning around and heading back to Death Valley, but I keep thinking about something I'd written down the day before, "Stop worrying about all the things that could go wrong, and start living in hopeful anticipation of all the things that could go beautifully right."


On I went..


The wind dies down quite a bit as I roll into Lone Pine around 3 in the afternoon. I find the entrance to Alabama Hills about midway through town and head up. As I crest the small hill into the OHV area, the view takes my breathe away. With Mt. Whitney as a backdrop, seemingly endless piles of boulders are stacked upon one another for as far as the eye can see. I stop for a few minutes to take it all in, it is truly one of the most beautiful and interesting places I have ever been.


It's still early in the day so I have some time to explore but finding a campsite is on my mind. As I ride around I realize there are people everywhere, tucked behind every corner or bend. This is only becoming a problem for me because the winds are starting to pick up heavily and all I have is my motorcycle and a tent, I really need to find a place somewhat blocked from the wind and that is proving a challenge. I ride around for close to two hours before finding a spot that is, admittedly, not the best. It's marginally blocked from the wind though and will have to do, as the sun will soon be setting and winds only seem to be getting worse. 


Before I left for this trip I had looked at the weather and it was forecasted super nice for the whole area, because of this I decided to leave my rain fly at home, which also doubles as wind protection. In all honestly I really need a new tent. Mine was top of the line close to 10 years ago and still functions as it should, but tent innovation has come leaps and bounds since then. To pack my tent and rain fly takes up a lot space, which I simply don't have while traveling on the motorcycle. Long story short, it was a cold, windy night huddled inside my sleeping bag, with the bitter winds whipping through my uncovered tent at increasingly high speeds.


This is what adventure is about right here.


I spend most of the night reading a book I had found at a cabin earlier in the day (don't worry, I traded out a Tom Robbins novel for it) and eventually fall asleep hoping the winds will die down by morning.


I awake at daybreak to the winds still blowing fiercely and bitter cold biting at any open skin. Fortunately I had packed leggings and a base layer, so it doesn't really bother me. I make a cup of coffee and pack up camp in a hurry, deciding to head into town for breakfast before riding home. I'd love to explore more of Alabama Hills before heading out, but the winds show no signs of letting up and I'm eager to hit the road.


I get packed up and head into town with bacon and eggs on the brain. I stop to look up a good breakfast spot and Alabama Hills Cafe is right around the corner. Perfect. 


I pull up out front of the cafe with a smile on my face, stoked for the day ahead. The cafe is just one small room, maybe 15 tables or so and it's pretty busy, as I enter the whole place kind of stops and looks at me, it was almost surreal. After a few seconds everybody goes about their business and I take a seat at a free table. The waitress comes up and is very short with me, handing me a menu and not saying much else. I can't help but notice as she goes around the room she is abundantly friendly with every other table, I get the impression it's a locals joint and I don't feel all that welcome. 


I order my food and when the waitress drops it off she makes it a point to give me the check along with it. If that's not a sign, I don't know what is. It's clear I'm not welcome here for whatever reason. It could be because I've been in the desert for 3 days and haven't showered, but I imagine it could have something to do with my long hair and tattoos as well.. 


As I see it, I'm a paying customer and I've done nothing to intrude on these people's day, so I take my time eating my meal and seize the opportunity to check a few things on my phone. Throughout my meal, the waitress bumps straight into the back of my chair maybe 4 times. "Oops," she says each time with a very clear tone. Dang, this has genuinely never happened to me before. These people really don't seem to want me here. I'm not bothered by it in the least, should they take the time to warm up and be friendly, I'm sure we would have a great time and swap some stories. Maybe another day. 


I finish my meal, leave a generous tip (kill em' with kindness), and head back home with a smile on my face. I had an amazing time in Death Valley and the surrounding area and can't wait to get back and explore some more.


Party on Wayne.




                                                                           The road off the 190 out of Panamint Springs 



                                                                View of the valley while climbing up out of the riverbed 



                                                                              My beer can exhaust redirecterizer (tm)



                                                                   My campsite at Minnietta Mining cabin the first night



                                                                                  Inside Minnietta mining cabin 



                                                                                Starting my second day of riding





                                                                         An old mine going deep into the hillside





                                                                    An abandoned camp I found along Warm Springs Rd




                                                         Late into the second day, somewhere around dropping my waterbottle



                                                                                Taking a break in Titus Canyon



                                                                    Sign for Leadfield ghost town deep inside Titus Canyon 



                                                              The road winding through the massive walls of Titus Canyon




                                                                            The breathtaking view of Alabama Hills


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