We met few people who have made Death Valley their homes. Three, exactly, though I know there are more. First there was Phil, camp host of Furnace Creek campground. He drove Tyler to Panamint Springs when our fearless Freezer was in the throes of a serious bout of food poisoning whilst 200 feet below sea level. Then there was Josie of Stovepipe Wells. She sold me an overpriced Gatorade minutes before a hellish 5,000 mile ascent out of the valley. Finally we met Victoria of Panamint Springs, a waitress in the lone restaurant set deep in the eastern slope of the park’s western edge. They loved Death Valley. Were making it their life, their home.
I was slightly less enthusiastic about the place. Our two nights within the lower 48’s largest park were rife with a dry, endemic heat. Obviously. Winds and packs of yowling coyotes, tour buses with geriatrics stumbling about the overlooks in their white linen pants, dunes and dust and steep cliffs turning into mountains across the flat, salty expanse of the valley floor. It was a landscape designed with the sole purpose of murdering species ill-equipped to walk its barren slopes.
That all said, let me tell you something – Death Valley is neat. Factoids: largest park in the continental US, two inches of rain a year (often accumulated in a few ferocious thunderstorms) yet one of the largest aquifers, the nation’s hottest, driest, and lowest climate. On top of that, the series of valleys we biked into and out of were once filled with 700 feet of lake water and will be again in a couple hundred thousand years.
Also, scenes from Star Wars were shot here. Five, to be exact. All representing the arid desert planet of Tatooine. We cycled right past the sand dunes where C3P0, that sassy bronze bot, said “Peace!” to R2D2 shortly before being captured by Jawas, wandering rodent-sized scrap metal sellers.
In all, even with feeling like there were an abnormally high number of ways to end my short life within the park’s three million acres, I enjoyed my time cycling through Death Valley.
It all began with quite the descent. A twenty mile bomb from the top of some pass near the Nevada state line, down, down from 3,000 feet to -200. There was no sense in braking … our disc brakes would have squeaked and sparked and caught fire and cast us burning into a charcoal hellscape that the National Parks Service deemed suitable for protection, though obvious land here protects itself. We basically fell into the yawning maw of Earth and were such swallowed within its furance. What a weird feeling it is feeling the air grow warmer around you at 30 mph.
Our campground for the night was Furnace Creek. This is where we met Phil, our host. He looks like some athletic trainer from the 80s. A sharp white and yellow windbreaker, tan legs and bushy mustache. This was before Tyler started puking up the contents of his stomach. That happened after dinner, and continued through the next morning. What I didn’t know until I’d woke from a shaky sleep – coyotes make dreadful noise and there was some odd piano music playing at 3 am … who knows – was that Tyler had 911 called on him at midnight by a hasty couple gals who saw him sleeping outside the camp bathroom. The first, and hopefully last time we have to have a discussion with the paramedics.
Tyler was pale when we woke, swinging in his hammock. He was going to hitch, and Phil determined he was the man for the job. Thanks Phil! So we took off after dawn, the day climbing into the high 80s by eight.
My last contact with the team before that night was at Stovepipe Wells, an odd name for a community. It was right before there that we passed the Devil’s Corn Field.
In Stovepipe I met Josie, chugged a Gatorade, and started climbing out of the valley. A long affair indeed. It was a four hour event for me, eight for Brady and Rachel, nine for Megan and George. Thirty minutes for Tyler and Phil. What I learned was that I need to lose weight on my bike, lose weight around my gut, and connect a funnel to my mouth to shove blended foods and fruity electrolytes into as the long uphill road continues.
And then, of course, discover some way to not give back all that hard work at the summit. For of those 5,000 feet I descended just over 3,000 … a dizzying 9% grade that was if I had spilt forward into some shaken Tatooine or Moria accented with the finer flavors and shades of Dante’s first three circles of hell. Perhaps the hardest part of the descent the knowing that in four short days I would be passing (fingers crossed) over Tioga at 9,600 feet in Yosemite. Smush.
From the trough of the next valley over we had to pedal into headwinds over to Panamint Springs and there attempt to set up camp in 35 mph winds. Storms were passing overhead and sublimating in the dry, whipping wind. I retreated inside the campside restaurant. There I was happy to discover a tasteful selection of draft beer. Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout. Do me on it. I talked with Victoria the waitress. Her brothers own the place, having built it up over the past nine years to as pleasant a park experience as Death Valley allows.
That night, after everyone had arrived and we were eating shells and cheese (camp favorite), we met two touring German teenagers named Aaron and David. They were taking a year off between high school and college and just decided, on a whim, to take a bike tour from San Fran to Vegas whilst tooling around the US. So there they were with their 200 lb Bob cart, getting ready to ascend the 9% grade the next morning.
It was cool seeing a couple kids – I say kids, I’m only five years older than them – just do a pretty serious 1,000 mile ride with about as zero planning as possible. And look at us, with our fancy bikes and bags. Maybe we’ve been doing it wrong. Maybe not. I slept much better that night. As for Tyler, who was now feeling much better, I regret to say that one of the trees he was using for his hammock broke in the middle of the night with much ado. It was quite the cracking. So it was a tarp on the gravel for our poor Tyler. Sometimes the road smiles at you, sometimes it takes a hot steamy pee all over your head. Tyler took his lumps in Death Valley … we like to think he’s just paid his dues.
The morning we woke to leave Death Valley was a good morning indeed. I was ready to ascend out of this place. Another big climb, another three hours at five mph, and then we were over and out. An experience to remember. Death Valley, it was real.