Hell on Wheels
Adventure Cyclist (September/October 2007)
Article by Michael DiGregorio
It's been said that water is the most precious resource here in the hottest, driest, and lowest point in North America. If that's the case, then shade comes in a close second. Although the calendar said April, the Death Valley sun had already gone heat-lamp intense.
Accordingly, a clutch of cyclists, all men in their late forties, prepped and sun screened-up beneath a bosk of shaggy mesquite trees near the visitor center at Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park. Surging out from this miniature green zone, surrounded by 3,000 square miles of brown, the cyclists will find zero defenses for the UV version of a full-court press.
The riders were a mix of classmates and friends of classmates froma Fairfax, Virginia, high school, explained lanky and voluble Bob Holste.
Holste had just left a post as a congressional aide for a position in the Rudy Giuliani presidential campaign. Flanking him was a Maryland bank president, a lawyer-lobbyist, and an ex-Marine turned physical therapist.
But these gents were a long way from their Flomax moment. Professional accomplishments aside, this boomer entourage were all committed cyclists.
Yet not one had experienced Death Valley, a low-elevation, heat-radiating saltpan bracketed by high-altitude mountains east of California's Sierra Nevada range. It's a realm the Timbisha-Shoshone people, the valley's original inhabitants, called "ground afire." It's the place where NASA test-drove Mars Explorers and lunar landers and George Lucas found Star Wars backdrops.
After a morning rendezvous at Las Vegas Cyclery, the group was shuttled here, two hours west, via the bike shop's alter ego, Escape Adventures. But the figurative wheels had been put into motion a few weeks earlier when one of the men's wives had phoned the shop.
In Maryland, and with no clue about the trekking component, Dave Meadows' wife sought nothing beyond a little local knowledge.
"Our first plan," Meadows said, "was to hire a plane and a truck to get the bikes, beer, and the steaks to Scotty's Junction, a 30-to-40mile ride, as we saw it, to the park's far eastern edge. But for not a whole lot more than what it would have cost to ship the bikes, Jared Fisher, the bike shop's outfitter and co-owner, designed an itinerary geared to our needs."
To accomplish this, Fisher rolled out a uniquely qualified support vehicle - one that could display red and green crosses on the doors, one for simple cyclist triage, and the other for environmental sustainability. (See Standards and Measures sidebar).
Having ridden and scouted Death Valley - at 3.39 million acres, America's largest national park outside Alaska -Fisher recognized its huge potential for cycling. The promised headspace, folded into long challenging hauls framed by inspiring surroundings, suited Dave Meadows.
"We were neophytes in terms of guided touring," the Baltimore cyclist said. "The early conversations we had with Jared, then his coming back with photos and a detailed package…finding him really became something of an exercise in blind luck."
Conversely, it was perverse luck that brought a group of nineteenth-century economic refugees to gasp "Death Valley," creating what is arguably America's most visceral toponym.
In 1849, a group of pioneers took to a little-known overland route that promised to cut 500 miles from the Old Spanish Trail to the California goldfields. The route they followed had been drawn by a mountain man named Elijah Ward.
The pioneers, who would become known as "the 49ers," also had a map which they had secured from Captain John Fremont, whose cartographer had no reckoning of the vast Great Basin desert north and east of Death Valley. Cryptically, he referred to the region as "unexplored."
Like so many elements of the Western experience, a wide degree of conjecture surrounds the story of the Death Valley 49ers. Some say there were 18 fatalities out of an original crossing party of 30. Other historians, however, point to no more than two accountable deaths.
Legacy and body count aside, what's remarkable that a place so pivotal to Anglo- America's Western expansion is all but shunned by Americans, at least for a large share of the calendar year. At summer's peak, nearly 90 percent of park visitors are Europeans. At the same time, increasing numbers of cyclists (also disproportionately Continentals) are enjoying the same cycling friendly landscape that Jared Fisher recognized. Namely physically challenging point to- point road rides made more intriguing by a span of colorfully evoked historical sites and further book-ended by either clean, well placed campgrounds or efficient resorts.
Beneath a plasmic sun, the cyclists pushed out onto California Route 190. Long and gloriously skeletal, 190 bisects the length of the park. although average July and August air temps hover in the 116- to 122-degree range, on the asphalt the reading will usually top out between 180 and 200 degrees. Not coincidentally, that's also when English becomes not even the second, but arguably the third language in the park, behind German and French.
The ride's second and third act played out in the park's southern end below Furnace Creek. From the first day's precipitous ascent, the cyclists got worked over on an equally arduous ascent of Dante's View.
Carved across the backside of the Funeral Mountains, the Dante's View route gains 5,600 feet over a span of 26 miles. But the payoff is an unmatched viewpoint of the valley floor. Later that day, the group lost themselves on the aptly named Artist Drive: a nine-mile haul with a 1,000-foot gain in the first three clicks.
Moreover, as predictably as low-pressure systems give way to highs, after 48 hours in the saddle, Death Valley had begun to produce quiet but unmistakable revelry. In favor of, say, hot showers or clean undergarments, urgency was given to enjoying the sunset from a folding chair while deconstructing the ride. It was kismet, as one rider realized, when a flat on one stretch led to a surprise glimpse of a showy bloom on a prickly pear cactus.
Each night also closed with panache. In the great open-air dining room called the Furnace Creek Campground, the meals became all the more memorable for the colors seen in the mountains that shape what one ultra-marathoner called a "gigantic natural strip mine." Shaded in diffuse blue-purple were the Panamints, while in the opposite direction, the Funeral Mountains to the east glowed subtly, dappled in purple bronze.
Afterward, the self-admitted political junkie Bob Holste framed the great sense of decompression best. After relating that he was shirking 5,000 emails weekly, Holste added, "But that's when you know it's a good vay-kay (vacation): when you bring the Blackberry, but never unpack it." If Holste gave the best quote, Chuck Barstow was the strongest cyclist. "I have ridden some centuries on my own and with others, but not on a tour," said Barstow, who resembles a brawnier Ben Kingsley.
---An ex-Marine who served tours in the Kuwaiti and Iraqi theaters, Barstow had never been on a cycling tour, so he admitted to harboring mixed expectations. "I had no idea of the difficulty of the rides in Death Valley," he explained. "I tried to prepare for what I sort of expected as the worst, but my preparation rides were once a week for about 75 to 90 minutes."
A small-business owner - Barstow operates a physical therapy clinic in Diamond Bar, California - he saw the genius in being guided across the Goliath of western wilderness by a heady David of cycling outfitters. He also found the route choices spot-on. "I love to climb. I love the majesty of this place," he said. "The rides themselves are very challenging-though I had hoped for a little more time in the saddle."
Barstow admitted finding his groove on the second day in the park. Yet the physical and psychological aggregate of two thoroughly challenging rides only fed his fire for more terra diabolus.
"All pain is temporary. In the Corps, I used to say I could take anything-say a week's worth of cold weather training," he said without a hint of hubris. "Then it was, I could take anything for two days. "But even after the second ride, I felt I had some left. The ride up to Dante's View was the best because one of the guides stayed with me and pushed me some. But I would have enjoyed a day where we had a good 70 to 80miles in one ride."
Still fighting fit in his fifties, an ex- Marine turned horizon-seizing cyclist had said, not only to a pair of super-fit guides half his age, but to the Valley called Death: Thank you, sir. May I have another? That kind of "hell-yes" bravado for an extended surge across an ancient desert is one all adventure cyclists can salute.Michael DiGregorio's cycling and outdoor travel features have been published in magazines such as Backpacker, Bike, Men's Fitness, Mountain Bike, Paddler, Powder, the San Francisco Examiner, and Shape. He rides and resides on Las Vegas's northwest edge.