We might also call it the DV 800 (kilometers) or the You Gotta Be Kidding 500, etc…
So I got invited to join a riding weekend trip in Death Valley by my buddy Terra (Too Tall) Conlon a couple of weeks ago. An acquaintance of his from the SF Motorcycle Club, Phil Bowman, was putting on a rally practice/ training weekend there and we both thought it’d be fun, had bikes that could make the needed mileage (150 or so miles between available gasoline), and we both had time off work… So fast forward to last week, Terra with his DR650SE, and I, with my 950 Adventure S, met Phil and gang on the evening of Thursday 1/18 near Little Dumont Dunes.
I arrived at the site a little before sunset. The weather was calm and beautiful as I got situated and prepped my bike and gear for an early morning departure. Terra drove down with a fellow San Franciscan and arrived after dark. He missed this:
Phil held a riders meeting around the fire after dinner during which he gave a quick review of Friday’s route, covering what he was certain about, some of the known hazards, and also discussed some assumed unknowns. He made it clear to everyone, the route had Not been pre-ridden. Everyone needed to partner up with someone, to know how to use navigation equipment, and to be prepared for a long day. Phil himself was to be kickstand up by 4:00 AM (say what?!)
Terra and I reluctantly agreed to wake up at 4:00 and to be riding by 4:30.
It was in my head as a 400 mile ride.. and laying in my sleeping bag Thursday night, looking at Weather Underground trying to decide what to wear, I realized we’d have only 10 hours of daylight for this. Quick easy math says that’s a 40mph average. Phil was leaving at 4 AM, he’d have 13 hours before sunset. Ok calculator what’s that?…about 31 mph. In my head I’m thinking “That seems easy enough… ”
1) it wasn’t a 400 mile ride, it was a bunch more.
2) 31 mph is difficult when you consider stops, getting lost, riding in sand-wash in the dark…
Terra and I headed out into the dark of morning. 4:47 AM. Easily the earliest I’ve ever started a ride. A handful of riders had started ahead of us. The rest were milling around or still asleep. It was a nice morning overall, mild temperatures, no wind, no rain.
The route started at a location on Hwy 127 about a half mile from camp. We had some trouble finding where, exactly, to start off into the dirt. Actually, considering how much information we had at our disposal we looked like complete clowns out there. We had the actual GPS coordinates, the route heading, a little drawing of what the turn looked like, And we had actual GPS tracks and we still got lost!
Basically now, being easy on ourselves…I’m pretty sure we were just in disbelief of where we were being directed to ride. The route was not just sending us off-road, but off-off-road. The instructions seemed to say “go ride across this crazy rocky desert landscape, in the dark”. There was no dirt road and no tire tracks in the dirt, instead there was sand-wash, a lot of it. It was not 31mph. We have some GoPro video footage of this but it might be embarrassing to share. Check back here for updates. I have to meet with Terra still to get the files.
So this beginning section was actually a little scary. The sand-wash was immense. And without being able to look at anything that our headlights weren’t pointed at, it was difficult to “read”. We traversed this vast sand-wash for about an hour, basically, and seemingly endlessly, crossing dry riverbeds full of big pointy rocks and hardened sand, dry riverbank climbs and descents. In one particularly tricky section the route took a 90deg turn and pointed us directly up what looked like a 30′ wall of dirt. My head was shaking in disapproval as Terra took the lead and charged up it. We had Zero information about what existed past the crest.. was it a drop off? Rocks? Another wall? Thankfully it was a plateau.
So we continued, riding slowly out of necessity. As the terrain got steeper it became more important to be certain with our course headings. I had no intention of lifting my 500 pound motorcycle this early in the morning and kept it clearly in mind and body that dropping it was not an option. The route eventually led us onto dirt roads which benefited our moving speed average but made for opportunities for wrong turns and having to turn around (tricky for me as the 950 has a 35″ seat height and I cant touch the ground).
Sunrise came as we descended from higher ground down through more wash and exited onto a maintained dirt road. The road headed North and was smooth enough, and with the new light of the morning, it allowed for a fast and simultaneously relaxed pace. We cruised here as we let our bodies recover, eventually catching up to, and then passing, the riders who started before us. The course would head North for the rest of the morning eventually taking us up to Rogers Pass at 7,160′ elevation. On the way to the start of that climb we rode an even mix of wash, rocky dirt road, and sandy two-track jeep trail, some that was very fun. I’m cautions when I see a camera pointed at me.
Terra stacks a rock only he can reach at a pass South of Manly Peak.
The climb up to Rogers Pass was interesting to say the least. It was here during the initial approach where I felt my first real deep, heartfelt pangs of uncertainly. The road was steep, dry, full of loose rocks, with switchbacks and steep drop-offs. Big bikes like mine are quick to dig themselves holes with their rear tires in steep terrain. Especially when loose rocks approach the size of tennis balls and this section had them. Smaller bikes will dig themselves holes too but getting them out and moving again is much easier. Even when the conditions are perfect I have a hard time keeping the 950 from falling over when stopped. Keeping the bike moving, keeping up the momentum, was vital. This section of road held the ideal conditions for halting my progress.
I felt my first and only arm pump here as well but kept moving out of basic desperation. As always seems to happen when I ride this big bike after only a few miles the road relented, the steepness tapered, and the rocks gave way to dirt. Whew! Wow did I feel lucky. I think I’ll name this bike Lucky 🙂
I need to check and see if there’s any GoPro footage of this.
We met up with Phil and his crew mid-way up the pass.. where the dirt was nice. Most had passed me while I struggled up the earlier section but we caught up to them taking a snack break. Here Phil told me there was a steep climb up ahead that might be trouble and I responded with something like “oh, great”. But Phil and his buddies were super cool and assured me it’d be no problem… they were happy to help me if I were to get stuck. They were riding little bikes, a 350, a 500, and good ol’ desert sled 650R. And come to think of it, a guy named Charlie, a Dakar rally finisher, was on a Beta 2stroke!
Left to right, Factory Phil, Captain Ron, Lionel, me, and Dan looking at the ground. Terra behind the lens.
Before we could reach the top there were two more tricky spots to negotiate. One was the steep climb referenced by Phil, but we encountered the other one first. Imagine a side-cut jeep trail. The hillside on the right, a cliff/drop-off on the left. On the right the hillside was vertical, the trail having been cut into a combination of rock and dirt. The cliff / drop-off on the left was similar and something you don’t recover from without a helicopter ride to the ER. The crux here was a rocky step-up of a few feet in height and situated at a 90-degree right hand corner. A clean line up the shoulder of a decent sized boulder was on the right side, where one might drive their Jeep’s right-side tires, was an obvious line choice for small bikes. On them, a quick blip of throttle would loft a front tire up and you’d basically be done. And it looked safer too, being close to the wall the potential for a mishap that might send you down the cliff was pretty low. But lofting the front tire on a 950 off road is not quite so simple. I parked my bike to scope the options and settled on a line at the left, near the cliff. The chosen line would maybe allow me to dab a foot if It got squirrely, something the right side boulder line would not allow for. I liked that but would not have chosen this line without Terra’s help spotting me. Without hesitation Terra stood guard on the cliff side to help catch me in case something went wrong. It gave me comfort knowing help was there. Nothing went wrong but the potential existed in a very real way. Even the guys on the small bikes were having trouble with this section. Phil and Lionel gave me high-fives after cleaning that section. Again relieved we continued up the road.
About 5 miles farther up we encountered tricky spot number two, a steep loose hill climb, with a 90-deg left hand corner about 20% of the way up As I approached I saw Phil’s bike on it’s side about half way up and Terra was making his 1st attempt. It was pretty nasty up there with winds blowing at speeds upwards of 30 mph across the hardest part of the climb, left to right. I stopped in a convenient spot just below the left hand corner to appraise the situation and to let Phil descend and Terra get to the top. Lionel gave it a shot before Phil came back down so I waited a little more. I really didn’t want to stop on this hill or have to ride over someone. And anyone in my way would have been good traction, and very tempting to use.
Here’s the climb with two riders making their way back down to try again.
Terra made the climb without any drama on his second try, only botching the 1st try due to a missed shift from 1st to 2nd. For me, knowing my 1st gear would spin my tire up to 50mph, there would be no shifting needed. I cleaned the climb on my 1st attempt and at the top Ron helped celebrate by pumping his fist in the air. I guess these guys thought I’d have more trouble 😉
We admired the view just long enough to snap a picture and headed down the trail. Which was like a toboggan run! Sooo much fun! With perfect pine needly desert dirt, no dust. We caught up to Dan on this trail. He’d apparently been lost for some time but got things sorted and we blasted off downhill, all three together. The descending toboggan run took us into the town (One little store) of Ballarat. And from there into another jeep trail and crossed more sandy wash as we made our way North about 40 miles to Panamit Springs for our 1st gas stop. We took breaks along the way.
Not much to see at the Panamit gas station, my dashboard was more interesting. Nice taillight Terra.
It was windy and overcast when we arrived at the gas station in Panamit Springs. We’d ridden 165 miles so far and been out on the bikes for 8 full hours and I had questions in my mind… Where are we exactly? What’s the shortest way back to camp? Is there a route that we could ride back in the dirt from here? Etc…
The clock said there were about 4-1/2 hours of daylight left.
The the guys that arrived at gas before us probably had the same questions as they were busy changing out their roadbooks… planning their bailout routes, and paper was flapping all over everyone’s dashboards. It looked quite miserable. (Roadbooks are long rolls of paper instructions which roll up into chart holders. You can see Terra’s in the photo above.) I really didn’t want to turn back yet. There was some interesting terrain in the route still. I had looked at the route a couple of days before and knew that the next attraction would be the road leading up to the Racetrack Playa, where the mystery of the moving rocks only recently was solved. (https://scripps.ucsd.edu/news/mystery-solved-sailing-stones-death-valley-seen-action-first-time) And that road itself held an unsolved mystery for me. Five years ago, when driving my VW Vanagon, I was basically forced to turn around after nearly reaching the top and I had been wanting to get back up there ever since. Discussing with Terra.. “What do you think? We’re nearly out of time. Heading back now we’ll probably get in at sunset”…
Terra’s response had me shaking my head again… He was “sorta thinking we should just do the whole thing”… his actual words.
Lol. We’re 165 miles and 8 hours into a 450+ mile ride with barely over 4 hours of daylight left and all the more serious looking riders including Charlie, a Paris-Dakar Rally finisher, have just turned around and headed back to camp, the fast way. Terra and I were still ahead of some guys, who we’d later find out either could not make it to the top of windy hill, or had, for one reason or another, already quit the route. And even though I wasn’t ready just yet to turn around the idea of riding the whole thing seemed absolutely ludicrous. (I had recently learned the route was actually supposedly 460 miles while discussing options with other riders). Terra and I decided to get up to the Racetrack and reassess once there. With that we headed out onto the highway for a 15 mile stretch of twisty pavement.
We were treated to an awesome sight while riding the highway as it wound around and up a canyon wall. A pair of fighter jets dropped out of the sky and down into the canyon to our right. They banked hard left while dropping in between the canyon walls and it looked and sounded insane. It was the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. I think Terra would agree.
The road up to the Racetrack wasn’t too difficult and was pretty fun.
Even at the top where I had turned around in my VW. A bone stock 4runner could easily drive it. We reached the top at about 2:45. Up here it was warm and not windy at all.
The road there itself was more interesting than the Racetrack. The light was flat and the sky was grey. Photos of the famous moving rocks would not compete with what we could just google. And knowing the mystery of how they move has been solved we stayed on the bikes and on the gas. On my mind was how far we’d get before we ran out of daylight.
The dirt road from the Racetrack North to the Ubehebe Crater is relatively smooth and well maintained with minimal washboard. Terra and I made very good time here. I won’t put in writing how fast we might have been riding but the road was smooth and forgiving and very slightly downhill. Corners were numerous but not tight and I was feeling very connected and at one with my bike. Actually here at times the 500-lb machine felt downright tiny and almost disappeared below me. I love it when this happens. It’s only happened a couple of times in my life and this was the only time I’ve felt this while riding off road. I appreciated every moment of it.
Terra on the podium at Ubehebe Crater. Wait.. not a podium. He’s just tall.
It was a little after 3:00 as we found the next section of dirt. The route headed North from here (yeah still headed even farther North..) and even though there were less than 2 hours of daylight left the riding had been so much fun that we both felt we should keep going. We took a short break and I used a few minutes to replace a burned out fuse in my headlight circuit. (The story on this is a lesson in three and four-way switching which I learned the hard way)
After about 15 miles on this road, at the Northern-most point in the trip, we headed East in a virgin sand wash that was very different than what we’d seen earlier. Here it dawned on me..the possibility that Terra and I were probably alone out here. There were no other tracks in the sand… Had no one had made it this far today?
The riding was difficult here, the sand was deep and loose, the wash was wide and rough. There was no time or attention to spare on the worry that was creeping around in my mind. That worry was compounded as the winds picked up and raindrop started to ping my face shield…and then as the wash narrowed, as we climbed up the gently rising alluvial plain,…tracks!…well…track. One lone set of tire tracks. A bike had been through here recently. Feeling relieved…again.
By about 4:00 the wash made its way to an intersection of unimproved dirt roads and our route took us South towards Bonnie Claire where we crossed Hwy 267 and picked up onto a Long straight gravel road. It was a little windy here so dust wasn’t an issue but I got a little concerned for our safety related to our mental health in this section. Terra seemed to not be holding a very steady pace, hauling-ass for 2 minutes at a time then slowing way down, and then repeating. Personally, I was pretty tired so there may (very likely) have been some Projection in my concern, but I thought it best to check in with him periodically. He was fine…was just goofing around with his GPS which caused him to back off the pace.
Regarding the mental fatigue…I had been here before, once on a 22-hour 210-mile day of mountain riding on a loaded touring bicycle, another time in the middle of a 24-hour 1,275-mile streetbike ride through California’s best twisty roads, …. And based on these prior experiences this was quite early into fatigue-related mental incapacity. But also based on those prior experiences I can tell you with absolute certainty that it’s very important to Question yourself and your friends, to get a reading from them, and for them to get a reading of you when the risks are so high. Terra and I were about to begin riding completely unknown-to-us terrain after being awake and working hard for 12+ hours. And we both could get lulled into a false sense of security by a straight easy road like this one. And it was about to get dark…
In the early 1900s the Borax mining company built a railroad parallel to the road we were on and the route sent us over and onto it. We found that the tracks themselves are long gone, and that only the hollow shell of some of the old wooden ties and the railroad bed itself, which is slowly eroding, remain. Along this section the railroad crosses an ancient sand wash and the bed of the railroad is raised. Every now and again along the path there once were trestles built across deep sections which would have allowed water to flow around this raised bed. As with the steel tracks, and most of the ties, these trestles are long gone however where they once stood now exists large gaps, almost canyons, along in the path. Riding on this raise bed we encountered about a dozen of these canyons. And they were not always obvious or easy to see coming. In fact we heard from a rider earlier in the day that he’d crashed at one of these gaps… not seeing it in time, attempting to jump over it, and broken his motorcycle completely in half. (At least that’s the way I remember hearing the story). With darkness approaching I really struggled here. Riding around the gaps the sand was soft and full of brush. I dropped my bike at least once and struggled to get it upright. Luckily (again) we managed to complete this section before it got dark, our progress on the railroad bed led us to an intersecting a dirt road right at 5:15 (I could hear Roger Daltrey, Outta my brain on the Fiiiive-Fiifteeeen).
The darkness slowed us down considerably. The next 20 miles took us over an hour and it’s understandable. We’d completed 300+ miles in the last 13 hours and were being cautious. I wasn’t complaining about the slow pace but I did notice it. I let Terra lead because his headlight was considerably brighter than mine and because the terrain was a dirt two-track road on which riding the 950 slowly is pretty easy (unlike sand-wash which requires a faster pace to keep it upright). We arrived in the town of Beatty at around 7:30 PM and stopped at the nearest gas station to fill up and take a break.
Beatty was 320 miles into the ride. We stopped doing math at that point. Feeling certain that the gasoline in our tanks would be plenty to get us back to camp following the route, and feeling pretty accomplished overall, the stress of the night melted away. I mean…how much harder could this really get? Weather Underground showed us that between 11:00 PM and 1:00 AM there was a good possibility that it would rain on us, re-upping a sense of urgency in my mind. Terra didn’t seem to give a f*ck.
So I gotta ask you (yes you) for a little patience through the next 100 miles. It was dark, it was late, we’d been riding in sand and dirt for upwards of 15 hours..my memory is a little fuzzy and there aren’t any pictures. The fear-inducing, and awe inspiring, and hysterical moments are still clear though. And there are a few good ones, so it’s worth it… 🙂
Using Google Earth inspecting our route for the 30 or so miles that we rode after leaving Beatty and it’s jogged my memory. The section was comprised of about 5 miles of Hwy 95 South and then another 25 miles of sand-wash. I remember feeling like we were riding on a plateau but that was not the reality. It was just my brain filling in details that could not be known. We followed the GPS tracks through this wash until the route turned West and headed back into California. I’d had enough sand. It was slow going. I wanted to be done..But it was starting to sink in, this was a really long ride.
The route into California led us into Echo Canyon, back into Death Valley. We climbed as we rode West, up a gently ascending and narrowing wash. The walls got taller and terrain began to get more and more rocky the higher we got. In two places we rode through challenging rocky step-ups. And near the high-point of the road we encountered a steep narrow rocky drop, probably about 8′ tall. I’m betting that in daylight this section would have been relatively tame but in the dark it looked pretty rough. Terra negotiated the drop on his own but I needed help. Anyone who’s ridden a 950 Adventure knows that you can’t see much of anything when riding over a drop-off. The fairing is just too big. And the darkness compounded the difficulty. Terra and I walked the 950 down the rocks. Even with two of us it felt pretty dangerous. After my bike was down I had a quick flash of fear…What if there were more of these?! What if this was the easy one?
In Echo Canyon in the dark..except for the spots where the it got narrow, we were only vaguely aware of our being surrounded by its steep rocky walls. Terra lead through most of this area, again because his headlight was so much better, and because of that at times I was able to get a glimpse of the height and shapes of the canyon walls. I stopped to take a picture of what I’ve found out is called “Eye of the Needle”, a rocky wall with a giant hole through which I could see the night sky. My photo looks like you might imagine…dark and blurry, but Google will show you some nice images. Check out this guy’s stuff: https://www.williamhortonphotography.com/death-valley-national-park-winter/
Echo Canyon led us down onto Hwy 190 a few miles South of Furnace Creek. The route went South here, and I’m sorry I don’t remember it. I do remember 50 miles later when our GPS route ended however.
The second of the three GPS tracks ended a the intersection with Hwy 127, after 12 miles of really great two-track trail. Total mileage to this point was 420. No I didn’t. I would have if I’d had some though.
Terra and I loaded the third track into our GPS units and were both equally confused… This new track started 12 miles away, back where we had just come from…What the heck? DOH! Oh Yeah! The end of track number two included a bailout to the highway. Terra hadn’t reviewed the route instructions… And I hadn’t remembered …Instead of heading back we decided to jump on the highway and to pick up the tracks 20 miles down the road. This would cut down the total amount of dirt on our ride by less than the 12 miles that we’d just accidentally ridden and it would take about the same time as back-tracking. Most importantly it would at least feel like progress which was something we really needed. We rode the highway and found the tracks. More sand wash, but it quickly lead to a dirt road.
The list hazards of riding unknown sand-wash in the dark is long. It’s midnight, 19 hours into the ride, we’re at mile 465, and stuck in a dry riverbed. Looking at the tracks we made they look like a bowl of spaghetti from our looking for the way out. We’d dropped in here following the route. We found the way-point, which I was super proud of BTW, but in doing so had descended some terrain that the 950 was not going to get back up. It was too steep and too loose. And there were deep ruts. Any attempt would have been ugly at best. The 5 minutes we spent here felt like an hour. I was stressed. I had led us into this spot…I parked my bike and went for a hike with my Petzel backpackers headlamp. I’m sure I verbalized my relief with a “WooHoo!” when I confirmed that Terra’s intuition was correct, there was a road above the far side wall. Also, there was a lone dirt bike tire track headed up between the brush…I wondered if that was the same guy from the sand-wash up North. We got outta that ravine and back on route.
Did I mention that the list hazards of riding unknown sand-wash in the dark is long? Ten minutes after leaving that ravine Terra and I were riding pretty fast down a fun dirt road doing about 35 mph when we both launched into the air. Accidentally. And half a second after that and I was again in the air and this time headed off the road. I kept it upright but only just barely. The real fear was due to the darkness. And the Joshua tree. And the large rocks which went buzzing past, inches from my path. Whew! That was close….I got back on the gas and caught up to Terra just in time to enter more sand wash. And the sand-wash was Impossible to ride… I was slow to realize why. For a couple of minutes I struggled to keep my bike under control without really questioning it. Then I realized that all my usual techniques weren’t working… It was as if my bike had a mind of its own for some reason. Where once I could put my wheels exactly where I wanted I could now only aim my bike and hope for the best. “Man”, I thought, “How tired am I?” “Did that off the road scare take it out of me?” I wasn’t suffering from any arm pump. I wondered if my eyesight was going… Or was there some delay between my brain and body..? I struggled like this for another mile or so then stopped figuring that I must have a flat tire. I checked. Both tires were fine. What the heck?
It turns out that my rear shock was blown. There was no telltale oil-covered mess but it was no longer providing the support it was supposed to. The remainder of my ride would be a real struggle. My bike continuously bobbed and weaved like a drunk boxer. Riding it was miserable. For another 15 miles my almost singular focus was to keep the bike upright in the rocky sand-wash alongside the Amargosa River. I was frustrated at having to ride slowly but the ride was almost over.
We were nearly back to camp when the route headed over the Little Dumont Sand Dunes. Of all the wild riding we’d just done Nothing was as wild looking as as what we were approaching. The dunes were almost perfectly white. The sand was fine and smooth. In the light of our LED headlights the sand reflected back at us brilliantly and in a way that confused my vision.
The initial dune was probably 10 feet tall. I stopped at the bottom, uncertain. Was I supposed to ride Up that? In a moment I felt an urgency to get up to the top as if I would be able to breathe better up there. As I twisted the throttle it I felt like I was riding up an ocean wave. I could feel the ocean. And I could smell the ocean. Riding the dunes was exhilarating and the experience was all consuming. We’d ride up and over a dozen more dunes before making camp. The height and steepness continually increasing with each surreal swell. It was the perfect way to finish the adventure.
We arrived at camp at about 1:00 AM Saturday, a little over 20 hours after we started. Camp was quiet but Terra and I had a good debrief, had a couple drinks and had a couple laughs before calling it a night…
The next morning I got up to make sure I spoke with Phil before he headed out on the day’s ride. I would not be attending..my bike was broken and I was tired, but I wanted to make sure everyone knew we made it back and was interested in hearing what happened with everyone else’s rides. Terra and I surely must have missed some good story telling around the fire the night before. But there wasn’t a whole lot to hear right then.. Bikes started firing up and the interest of those still eating breakfast soon turned to just what the heck Terra and I had gone through…well I was excited to talk about it too.
We learned later on Saturday that no one else had completed the ride. The tracks we saw in the wash up North and in the dark ravine were from Dan. He’d bypassed a bunch of the route after gas to ride some choice sections of the route. I let him know the tracks he left in the dirt were appreciated.
Saturday morning I was wide awake and feeling bummed that my bike was out of commission. But it was a blessing in disguise. By 2:00 in the afternoon my body was done. Just completely spent. I fell asleep and woke up at dinner time. Ron and Lionel fed me dinner. I didn’t tell them then but my dinner otherwise would have been dry cereal and raw baby carrots. I was prepared to ride, not so much to eat. Dinner was amazing and for desert!!! Desert was home made cobbler and ice cream! 😋
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the story. Please check back here soon for the GoPro video footage!
So that’s what they look like. Saturday morning I took Terra’s bike out for a spin on the dunes.<<<<<<
his dent must have happened at the same time that my shock blew out. She was ready for a new rim anyway.<<<<<<
e it is, the complete track. All 485 miles. I need to see at least half of it in the light of day.