For the full photo diary of this section of the tour please click here
Nobody could have prepared me for the vast beauty of the desert. The product of a green and pleasant land, my preconceptions of such a landscape can best be surmised with adjectives such as harsh and barren. I have accordingly been bowled over by the sensory might of the Californian and now Nevada (for I am writing from Las Vegas) desert. I immediately fell in love with its sense of scale and space, a terrain so open that even its plethora of mountain ranges cannot intimidate the enormous blue sky that reigns above. I have been enveloped in a landscape that has over the last ten days taken me over five mountain ranges, down to the lowest elevation in the U.S., from winter into summer and, as is becoming quite the status quo, into the presence and lives of some genuine individuals.
I quickly found myself becoming attuned to the rhythms of the desert landscape and recognised in myself a reaction that broadened what I now know to be a previously half cracked smile. My mind will long remember the explosion of smells that erupt from the desert flora and fauna as the morning sun confidently announces itself over the eastern peaks. As much as my skin will long bare the mark of that very star, a force that erupts into the cold nocturnal air and then hangs commandingly over the environment it controls, spraying the crisp and dusty terrain with its deadly rays of life. Then as the sun falls into western slumber and stars fill the dark sky another force would bounce up from the east; a moon so bright I could actually read by it. Like nothing I have previously seen or experienced, the desert has satisfied my need for mountains while helping me overcome my fear of the flat and featureless. It has put a firework up the arse of an adventuring spirit already fervent with expectation and opened my eyes to a new reality. Suffice to say… I have quite enjoyed it.
When I decided to steer my tour away from the coast and inland towards Yosemite, Death Valley, Las Vegas and then the Grand Canyon, it was into a land of personal ignorance. On the map it began as a simple game of join the dots, with the lines between these landmarks given little time or interest. I knew that the iconic destinations on this glorified sightseeing tour would all offer me something completely different from one another and I was aware of the challenges inherent in each: I expected Yosemite to be busy, Death Valley to be dry and hot, Las Vegas to be superficial and the Grand Canyon to be one hell of a treat. Yet I had never really considered what lay between them.
Although I cannot yet speak for the Grand Canyon, the previous stereotypes I noted do an embarrassing disservice to some of the world’s (let alone Americas) most amazing features. I cannot remember the first time I heard of these places and it is this that serves as a testament to their iconic status. There is a reason why I’d heard of Death Valley (and it’s not just that fantastic name) and similarly, a reason why Las Vegas is despised by so many that have never even taken the time to visit it. These are unique and special places, destinations I consider myself lucky to have cycled to. By riding a bike between the dots on my map I have won a sense of context on their locations and being, an appreciation for which I believe very few other people will be privy.
I knew there would be mountains around Death Valley, for a valley must by definition be depressed from something. What I didn’t appreciate was just how many different mountain ranges I’d be climbing over. For someone who gets a real kick out of hauling my heavily loaded bike up long and preferably steep ascents, this turned out to be a real bonus. A challenge that gained increased might by the weight of additional water I had to carry in the arid desert. My first obstacle out of Porterville (elevation 455 feet) was the vast Sierra Nevada. By the end of my second morning back on the road I had scaled my first pass of the leg, topping out at a snowy 6,102 feet on Greenhorn Summit. I then had the treat of free wheeling down through Sequoia National Forest towards Isabella Lake. It was close to the start of this descent that I glimpsed the desert for the first time. Having climbed out of lush green agricultural land and up through ranches and forest, it came as a real shock to round a corner and see the future… the future was a mix of browns, yellows, reds and oranges. I had expected the lake to be a little blue island in a basin of green, instead it was an oasis in a land of dust and low scrubby bushes. In a moment the landscape had transformed itself beyond my expectations and had me excitedly whooping and hollering my way down the mountain.
After a night camped up by Isabella Lake (EL. 2500 feet) I spun eastwards on Hwy 178 towards Walker Pass (EL. 5250 feet). Accompanied by a wobbly front wheel that bought a constant rubbing on the brake pads and the rapid realization that water was now at a premium, I fought my way up the pass to top out at 17:00. After the ritual photographs, I cruised down the other side into bona-fide desert and a glorious setting sun of pinks, oranges and reds. Camped up at just over 4,000 feet, I was finally in the desert and overwhelmed with a sense of anticipation for the coming days.
Having summited Walker Pass I looked forward to a full days relatively flat riding. Hoping to get a good number of miles under my belt, I set off from my first desert camp site brimming with excitement. The sky was a pure light blue and the sun shone proud as my wheels started rolling down the mountain towards Ridgecrest. Within half a mile my progress was rapidly halted by a flat rear tyre. Not to worry, I pulled all my bags off, stripped the tyre and began work on the tube. For the life of me I couldn’t find the puncture so I reassembled it all and started pumping. I pumped and pumped but there was definitely a hole. With frustration brewing I put in a new tube and finally got on my way. But my mechanical issues were not yet behind me as my front wheel continued to writhe around, messing with my brakes. I knew the cones needed tightening and vowed to get the problem sorted in Ridgecrest.
So, on entering Ridgecrest I stopped at the first bike shop I came across, hoping to borrow a spanner to tighten things up and get myself in good enough shape to ride it out to Las Vegas. Unfortunately the old man in the bike shop insisted on doing the work himself and as I watched he spent for ever maneuvering his shaky hands around my front hub. After three attempts he got it tight enough to satisfy me. The bearings were grating and the hub really didn’t sound great but I knew it would get me through to Vegas. Problem was that he’d taken an age and I was getting really pushed for time. As quick as I could I visited the local grocery store to restock for my trip into Death Valley, stole an internet connection from outside Starbucks to check on my accommodation situation for Las Vegas and went in search of the other, better bike shop in town. Buoyed by a late lunch and having met the most beautiful woman of the trip so far in the grocery store, I set off in search of TJ Frisbees bikes. It was proving illusive and I was on the verge of giving up, there was only an hour of light left and had to get out-of-town to find a camp spot. My sensible head was telling me that riding into Death Valley without any spare tubes would be foolish so I persevered. Thus set in motion a turn of events that turned a shitty day into gold.
I picked up a few things at the bike shop, including a new rear light, and got talking to the guys in there. Once I was done they came out and had a look at Shermy before I rode off into the sunset. As they pondered I moaned about my dodgy front hub whereupon one of them disappeared into the store to return a couple of minutes later with a shiny new Shimano XT hub. To my absolute astonishment he said I could have it with their compliments. I was dumbfounded by this extraordinary piece of kindness and could not thank them enough. What incredible luck… why do people keep taking me to heart and affording me such amazing generosity?!?
Pedalling away from the bike shop my head was buzzing, I couldn’t believe my luck. Only one hundred yards down the road I saw a fella coming towards me on a bike with a guitar strapped to his back. The bike was decked out with full front and rear racks so I thought he’d be the perfect person to ask about a potential camp spot. I’d love to have stopped and spoken to him but had no time, so I got directions and cycled away. But this chap was going my way and soon caught me up with an offer I couldn’t refuse… a place to stay in Ridgecrest! It turns out that Jeremy, 27, is born and bred Ridgecrest. He’d migrated up to Portland, Oregon to follow his dreams but had ended up riding his bike back to Ridgecrest a few months previous. This chance meeting had united me with a kindred spirit and we chatted at length about our motivations and expectations for life and touring. I was even lucky enough to be taken around to his friend’s house that evening where we enjoyed a games evening with Heather, Matt, Joyce, James and the worlds smallest dog. I won that night, victorious in my fortuitous introduction to more fantastic folks.
Next morning I rode out of Ridgecrest a different soul to the one that had limped in. Thus followed a day and a half of classic desert riding, through the small dying town of Trona, up the Searle Valley and into the jaw dropping Panamint valley. The temperatures were reaching 25 degrees celsius and I was having to carry all my own water. True to form, the desert is dry, so I lumbered Shermy with just over 16 litres of water. That is enough to support me for a couple of days desert riding. Water is heavy, but my trusty bike carried it with ease. It was a real buzz to be completely self-sufficient. A little self-contained touring unit, I was living and moving through an incredibly inhospitable environment under my own steam… bike touring seldom comes in a more rewarding form. I even treated myself to a disappointing detour across the Panamint valley to the ghost town of Ballarat and to a twelve-mile spin down the unpaved Indian Ranch Road. This move to an unpaved surface had my hopes for adventure spilling over with fulfillment… I was out in the hot desert in the middle of nowhere, miles from anyone and anywhere, completely at the mercy of my machine, my experience and my knowledge. The Yosemite snow and coastal rain felt like a lifetime away.
That afternoon I entered Death Valley National Park and began the notoriously unforgiving climb up Towne Pass. This pass hits an elevation of 4956 feet and uses over 6 miles of 9 to 14% grade to transport one over into the next valley… Death Valley. Having attacked the start of the climb in the cooling evening sun I managed to scale a good 2,500 feet before darkness came. Camping on the mountain was quite a treat, one that also shed me of a good deal of water and made the morning completion of the climb a great deal easier. My reward was almost twenty miles of downhill coasting into Death Valley and the small tourist settlement of Stovepipe Wells.
Descending down into Death Valley had me on edge with anticipation. The nerves in my spine were playing hopscotch as the enormous iconic valley opened out before me. Spinning on through Stovepipe Wells I passed a series of sand dunes and turned south-east into the jaws of Death. Before long I’d pulled off the road and sat to eat, drinking in my new surroundings. The valley is breathtaking; tall snow-capped mountains line the edges of the enormous valley bottom. White with salt deposits and littered with otherworldly geological features, I could have been on the moon. Pinching myself in disbelief as to where I’d cycled myself to, this was the start of two days of incomprehension as to the glory of my surroundings.
A leisurely afternoons riding spat me out at Furnace Creek where I planned to fill up with water before searching for a camp spot. My search was cut short when a young fella approached me. I really didn’t want to speak with him as I was in a rush to get out into the failing light, but fortunately he turned out to be one of the good guys. Alex, 24, from Indiana invited me to share his camp site in Texas Spring Campground and started an alliance that would add a true gloss to my time in the valley. On a road trip around the National Parks, Alex had been on the move for a little while and figured he would be for a little while longer. A good laugh, we gelled immediately and helped bring each other into the realisation of where we actually were. The next morning Alex would drive me up to Dante’s View, a 5475 foot peak that towers over the eastern edge of Badwater, the lowest point of elevation in the U.S. (-279.8 feet). The resulting view knocked me for six and we both found ourselves prancing around like excited school girls. The valley looked like a huge white tongue licking a flow through the harsh desert landscape.
Once back down in the valley I cycled the twenty odd miles south down to Badwater itself. Connecting with Alex again for lunch, we walked out into the valley to enjoy a paddle in the shallow salt lake that unusually covered the United States lowest point. Having previously been down to the U.S.’s most southerly point in Key West and having camped under its highest point on Mount Denali whilst on the way up to near its most northerly point in Prudhoe Bay, I feel I have explored more of the U.S.A. than the vast majority of its citizens. After arranging to meet up with Alex again another thirty miles south that evening, I remounted Shermy and began moving along the valley once more.
I have written on these pages previously about ‘magic days’, times on the bike when nothing else matters, where feelings of shear unadulterated emotion flood my system with a most extreme happiness. The afternoon pedal down Death Valley from Badwater to Harry Wade Road was one of these. My legs felt strong and my water laden bike moved effortlessly over the gently rolling undulations and bends that carried me down the most otherworldly beautiful valley I have ever seen. As I sped along the sun gently sank to my west, bouncing its fading rays off of patches of salty water. With Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsies wailing in my ears I found myself overcome with happiness. Me… Bike… Death Valley… unbelievable!
Alex and I enjoyed a good night of backcountry camping coloured by Peppermint Schnaps and briefly marred by my decision to pour boiling water over my own ankle. We had our time and our place and we were truly making the most of it. How good it felt to have someone to bounce the miracle of Death Valley off. Absurdly, it is moments like this that reinforce my desire to remain a solo tourist; I am on my own but never alone.
The next morning we said our goodbyes and I had Shermy take me up over Jubilee Pass (EL.1290 feet) and then Salsberry Pass (EL. 3315 feet), out of Death Valley and over the Amargosa Range. These two days took me along the Old Spanish Trail Highway across the Nopah and Spring Mountain Ranges, through my highest camp spot of 5,100 feet, over Mountain Springs Summit (EL.5440 feet) and down into Las Vegas.
Many of those who have crossed my path over the last eight months will be aware of my weird little dream of riding down Las Vegas boulevard. Las Vegas strip is glitzy, materialistic excess, and represents a phenomena offering complete antipathy to my touring mindset and appearance. It is the juxtaposition of me riding Shermy down the Vegas strip that has amused and preoccupied me. So it came to be that this bedraggled sun-kissed feral being on a bike emerged from the desert and into one of the most unashamedly showy environments in the world. My jersey was encrusted with salty marks from days hauling my load under the unforgiving sun, my straggly beard hung matted with desert dust and my deeply coloured arms turned a pearly bright white before disappearing up into rolled up short sleeves. With eyes telling tales of 6,000 miles travelled and over a quarter of a million feet climbed, I took incredible delight in hitting Las Vegas. I had my photograph taken by the ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ sign and then dived right in. A Saturday, the traffic was busy and the pavements bustling with over glammed curious tourists. There is no doubt that I was a novelty and drew plenty of attention from the assembled masses, but as the worlds famous hotels and casinos slipped past I did not feel out-of-place. Vegas is full of all sorts of folk and I was just another peculiar piece in this cosmopolitan jigsaw.
Having eventually made my way to meet my extraordinarily accommodating Warmshowers host, Kevin, I was able to settle down with a beer and reflect upon my intense introduction to Las Vegas. It’s really not as bad as people have had me believe. Las Vegas doesn’t claim to be an intellectual beacon of sophistication, it is a gambling centre where people can come to let loose. There are slot machines in super markets and amusement arcades where there should be laundromats, but that is the beauty of the place. Sure it’s not faring too well in todays economic climate, but on the whole it is clean, there are fantastic public spaces and the local people I have met are happy and kind as anywhere else. Las Vegas is a product of the U.S.A. and outside of the strip, very much like the rest of this countries disappointingly generic towns and cities. It just happens that here there is an added bit of spice, a raw edge that I like. Surrounded by incredible mountains and blessed with a fantastic climate, there are definitely worse places to live. If you fly into the airport here and make the five-minute trip down to the strip before flying out again several thousand $’s lighter then you’ll only see Las Vegas in her mini skirt and make up. But if you cycle through the neighborhoods and take some time out to appreciate it as a home then you’ll possibly see her in her pyjamas and slippers.
You will gather from my longer than usual ramblings that this leg of the tour has really engaged me and stoked my imagination. It has been a truly awesome experience for me to ride through a landscape I’ve never experienced before and to be consistently treated to blue skies and warm weather. My fire never needed reigniting but I was starting to lose my grip on the romance of the tour, that was until the desert invited me in. And it will only get better from here; I’ll be crossing the Hoover dam then hitting Route 66 on my way over to the Grand Canyon before diving south down into Mexico. Exciting times as always on the road to Tierra del Fuego.