Dicing with the Dirt
In Death Valley
by Guy Pickrell
Six mates take leave of their road-going
motorcycles to tackle The Mojave Desert
on dual-sport bikes. Only five made it.
In my side mirror, I watched our little convoy fall in behind me as we pulled away from Eagle Rider, Murrieta. It was late May and the California sun was high in a pale blue sky. The usual pre-tour nerves faded away as I focused on the road ahead. I had planned a 1,200-mile route through Southern California that would initially take us east to Joshua Tree National Park, then north, through the Mojave Desert and Death Valley, where we would turn west, into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and finally south, back to Murrieta.
EagleRider has since closed its Murrieta operation but their central Los Angeles branch offers a good fleet of adventure bikes that include BMW and KTM 1200's. For the first time, I took the opportunity to ride the KTM 1190 Adventure R. I remember reading a review on this RC8 based machine when it came out in 2014 - “a sports bike on stilts” apparently. Making up our party of six was another KTM (an 1190 Adventure), three R1200 GS’s, and a massive R1200 GS Adventure.
From Left: Marco, Todd, Kit, me, Malek (Roberto taking the photo)
The Road to Paradise
As soon as we got on the highway, Malek flew past me, the GSA’s front wheel an inch above the blacktop. I reeled him back in. He had no clue where he was going, and in a few short miles, we would exit for Route 79. A sweeping, single-track road which cut through chalky grey canyons, dotted with juniper and bright green yucca. It was all but deserted, and we got to grips with our unfamiliar machines. This was a ‘light’ tour, hotels, three nights, minimal gear. Todd had taken this to the extreme and appeared to have nothing more than a toothbrush and a pair of underpants. Our first stop was Paradise Valley Café, situated on a jun-
ction with the aptly named ‘Pines to Palms Highway’, gateway to the sprawling Mojave Desert and, a renowned meet-up for car and bike enthusiasts. Judging by the banter over lunch the jury was already in on our rental bikes. I was enjoying the revvy KTM, but if the R1200 GS is a confidence inspiring thoroughbred, then the 1190 Adventure R is a wild bronco. One of the few shod in knobblies, I was still a bit shy of testing the giant, skinny front wheel in the corners. Todd was the only one grumbling. He got stuck with the only air-cooled GS and spent most of lunch decrying its performance, giving him another opportunity to tell us all about his new Multistrada GT, back home.
From Left: Malek, Guy, and Kit - Joshua Tree N.P.
Into the Barren Desert
A fast, twisty road swept us up a giant rift on the southern side of the Santa Rosa Mountains. At the summit, the stunted pines gave way to a magnificent panorama of Coachella Valley and the desert, far below. A series of second gear S-bends provided an exhilarating descent to the town of Palm Desert, on the valley floor. Thirty miles later, we exited north through the southern entrance to Joshua Tree Park. The species of yucca that give the park its name dominate the flatland lying between strange, bare rock formations, made up of giant stacks of rounded boulders, which rise up from the plateau in precarious piles. Late afternoon is the best time to see this otherworldly place, when the Joshua Trees cast long, eerie shadows and the setting sun paints the rocks deep orange. The light was fading and we took some photos before heading out of the north exit and the last few miles to the town of Twenty-Nine Palms and our hotel.
Day two had us heading for Beatty, Nevada. A dusty old railroad town, about 300 hundred miles to the northeast. We picked up a vacant, single-track highway that took us over a mountain pass and descended into a giant desert bowl, which trailed off into the hazy mountains of the Mojave Preserve, 50 miles distant. On a short section of Historic Route 66, we found Roy’s Diner, a dusty relic of the 30’s. Miles of empty asphalt ran us through the desolate, red rubble landscape of Mojave. Joshua Trees, juniper, and gnarly cottonwood were scattered among the rocky bluffs.
A Day of Extremes
We stopped for lunch at the Crowbar in the town of Shoshone (pop. 31), the last services before entering Death Valley National Park. Our panniers loaded with water bottles, we set off on a fantastic set of fast corners and long straights that steadily climbed up Salsbury Pass. As we rolled over the crest, the road dropped away revealing Death Valley, nearly a full mile beneath us. As we swept down the mountain, the temperature climbed to 46°C, quite noticeable when we stopped in our Kevlar jeans and touring boots. At nearly 100 meters below-sea-level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in Death Valley. Soaring, jagged ridges and sheer cliffs tumbled down each side to the salt flat below, and we joined some of the tourists, sweating our nuts off, as we crunched out into the thick salt and blazing sun.
The Valley of Near Death
Talk of beer had us thinking about the hotel, still some 80 miles away, but first, I insisted we take the Artist’s Drive loop. A crazy, one-way, smooth asphalt road, which wound its way up an alluvial fan on the eastern ridge to reveal spectacular, variously colored rock formations, and awesome views of the valley. We regrouped at its end, bantering about the exhilarating ride and the hairpin bends. We were waiting for Malek, not usually the guy to hold us up when a car stopped and reported seeing one of our party take a nasty fall. There was talk of a broken leg and so I immediately called an ambulance. Two of the guys went back around the loop to locate him, while Roberto, Marco, and I remained.
More cars descended the road with new information. Apparently, Malek was walking around, bruised but ok. Eventually, he and the others rode down the hill toward us. He hadn’t been wearing his armored jacket and was lucky to have only sustained superficial injuries to his torso. Nonetheless, he clearly had a problem with his wrist. Not only that, but the GSA was in a right mess. Even so, Malek was adamant that he could ride on safely, and I reluctantly canceled the ambulance. We regrouped at the tiny town of Furnace Creek, a few miles north, where we had agreed to reassess the situation. Here we were joined by Officer Andrews, a Park Ranger, and once he was satisfied that Malek was indeed well enough to ride to Beatty and the bike road-worthy (just), he bid us farewell. We crested the last pass into Nevada just as the setting sun was starting to turn the rocks pink. Quite a few beers were sunk at the Happy Burro Pub, in Beatty that night.
We Ride an Amazing Track, Malek Retires, and Kit Gets a Puncture
Malek’s wrist was in the back of my mind, especially since I had a lot off-road planned for day three. Heading back into Death Valley, we took Titus Canyon Road, a narrow, 27-mile rubble track that drops into a cavernous gorge, barely wider than a car, before it winds up and over Red Pass at 5,500 feet. Mostly it was hard-packed but there were some difficult sandy sections. Apart from Malek, who had 50/50’s, mine was the only bike on knobblies. Everyone else had whatever tires came standard, and some of the guys struggled. None more so than Malek who, despite his resolve, was falling off way too often. As we crested Red Pass, we got an incredible view of Death Valley below, and it was here we discovered Kit had picked up a slow puncture in his rear tire. We quickly agreed to scrap the planned route and divert to the shorter, asphalt road. We headed west, stopping at Stovepipe Wells, the only other petrol station in the park, whereby Malek reluctantly made the call to EagleRider and arranged to be recovered to Las Vegas, the closest city. He would soon discover he had fractured his wrist.
The Towering Sierra Nevada
Our reduced party rode west. Over a pass in the stunning Inyo Mountains, and out of Death Valley, across the vast Mono Basin, on a dead-straight, windswept road. It was slow going. Kit had used a can of fix-a-flat on his tire, with limited effect and it required the regular use of his puny, battery-powered pump. Running across the entire horizon, we could see the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which surge up from the plateau in a giant, granite rift. We turned south on famous US 395, riding in the afternoon shadow of the soaring Sierras, eventually joining the only route west between here and Yosemite - the glorious 9-Mile Canyon Road, which climbs over 3,000 feet in a series of heart-pounding S-bends. Todd decided to stretch the Beamer’s legs and so I tagged along, confidently throwing the KTM into the corners. I was starting to break in my bronco. We stopped to wait for the others in the wake of a passing squall. The damp asphalt steamed and the cool air was heavy with the smell of pine sap as we took in the splendid views of Sequoia National Forrest. Grey canyons, rolling green fern, and redwoods clinging impossibly to the sheer bluffs.
Crossing the Mono Basin
A Pass Too Far
Sherman Pass, at nearly 6,000 feet, was the last obstacle between us and our hotel in the village of Corral Creek. It was late afternoon when we stopped at a remote shop in Kennedy Meadows and were told it was still snowed in. Incredible, when you consider hours earlier it had been 48°C in Stovepipe Wells! The only option was to double back down the mountain and pick up Chimney Peak Road, a 14-mile dirt-track that dropped us onto US 178 and another 50 miles to the hotel. The only positive news - the store had a plug-kit, and we fixed Kit’s tire. The recommended dirt track was initially a great ride. A steep, winding descent, of hard-packed dirt, cut into a ravine, but as the light faded, so the track disintegrated into soft sand. Expletives echoed across the pitch-black canyon as the bikes went down, one after the other (not my trusty KTM). With no harm done beyond a bruised ego or two, we eventually made our hotel.
My unstoppable KTM 1190 R
The Final Dash to Murrieta
There were 330 miles between us and EagleRider, which included a mountain range and the dense traffic of LA County. The final day began with a fantastic run south, past Lake Isabella, and through the Sierra foothills on empty, winding roads. For our last adventure, I led us through the San Gabriel Mountains on the Angeles Crest Highway, my local canyon - a hair-raising mix of mad S-bends and unreliable cambers. It was a great way to end the tour and the final proving ground for my KTM. The last 80 miles were a hideous fight through rush hour traffic, and not worth mentioning. We regrouped at the rental shop, handed back the bikes, hoping the staff wouldn’t make too much fuss about the nicks and scratches. (They didn’t).
It’s disappointing that most of the big adventure bikes available to rent in the USA are fitted with the standard tires (the notable exception is at Colorado Motorcycle Adventures). Okay, so the 1190 R comes fitted with knobblies, and once I got used to them I was surprised how confidently I could flick the bike around on the tarmac but, it is in the off-road sections, where the massive clearance and light body came into their own. Relative to the GS, comfort is the only downside. After a big ride on the KTM, your arse feels like two pounded steaks, and as you sip your first beer after a long dusty day, the vibrations will continue to ring through your hands and feet, nonetheless, you will also have a huge smile on your face and a great story to tell.