I took this picture of Death Valley while riding Linda Lu to the Sun Reunion, in the Spring of 2014. Click to see the full size image.
I first moved to Colorado in 1975 courtesy of the US Air Force. I fell in love with the snow, became a ski bum, and considered my barracks at Lowry AFB my domicile, and A-Basin my home. I was on the mountain as early in the season as possible, and as late into June as they’d let me.
I only discovered the spectacular beauty of a Colorado Summer when I returned in 1992. The shot above, taken from our peeling, chipping, badly-in-need of repair deck, is a closeup of the bottom of an afternoon thunderstorm to the East of us. Below is a picture of a second thunderstorm building to the North later that afternoon.
And here is what it looks like when it’s directly overhead.
The morning crowd outside the Los Gatos Roasting Company gasped. The team of bicyclists in their red and white spandex suits set down their coffees and pulled out their iphones. While they recorded the scene, two joggers wearing headphones stopped and tried to help me up. “He seems OK,” someone was saying to the 911 operator on their phone,
but he’s acting very strange.
I wasn’t acting strange at all. In a sudden burst of gratitude, I had fallen down on the sidewalk and started rolling back and forth, moaning “Oh My God. Oh My God.” What’s strange is that other people don’t do that, the weather in Los Gatos is that beautiful. Only a week before we’d been hit by 18 inches of snow at my place in Colorado. I couldn’t take my eyes off the bright blue sky and the leafy trees, but the joggers hauled me up onto my feet.
“Where’s a good place to run around here,” I asked them as they slapped the dust off my back.
“Across the bridge and down the path,” the thinner one said.
Before the police, ambulance, and fire trucks that were no doubt on their way could check my vitals and haul me off to the psyche ward, I thanked the joggers and took off across the bridge.
The Chasquis were the Pony Express of the Inca Empire. When I was young and living in Peru, some American runners theorized that training at altitude would give them an advantage because it would increase their lung capacity. So they flew to Cuzco. The Peruvians asked
“Peruvians, have we ever won a marathon?”
But nobody listened.
At home I run the mountain trails behind my house. They go either up or down, and don’t do much in between. Since our place is at 6800 feet, I’ve developed what a kind-hearted person might refer to as a measured pace.
Soon after leaving the coffee shop in Los Gatos I found myself jogging between a cemented-in river, the aqueduct, and Highway 17, a wide dirt trail with a slight incline heading up the Santa Cruz Mountains. Runners wearing earbuds playing music collections from their iTunes libraries designed to help them surpass their potential went by me so fast their windblast made me feel like I was riding the Harley again through Route 160 in Northern Arizona.
A little old lady using a walker with knobbies caught up with me.
She said, and we both laughed. She reminded me of my Mom. So we got to talking. My Mom considered conversation an art form, and loved indulging in long, meandering talks. She told me she learned that from her father, Ricardo. It’s how people passed the time in Lima, and no one ever asked “What’s your point?”
My daughter Grace calls me if a week goes by without a conversation. She likes to talk, too. And like her grandmother, she’s irresistibly engaging.
I suppose that for most of America and certainly Silicon Valley, the art of conversation is sitting in a broom closet, bubble wrapped into the box with the acoustic coupler modem. I sometimes wonder if my blogging is an attempt to keep the door from slamming shut.
Rich Schwerin and Bjoern Rost told me some of my blogs reminded them of Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. They probably want to borrow my Harley. Forget about it, guys. Hunter S. Thomson was a ground-breaking writer. And far more committed to experiencing the limits of madness than I ever want to be. I don’t know much about Hunter S. Thompson, but I wonder if he wasn’t searching for an identity.
Jack, Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club certainly was. Tyler Durden gave Jack an identity that working in a soul-sucking job within a materialistic society had stolen from him. That identify was born of a clear purpose: destruction. Which Tyler, a born marketeer, preferred to call mayhem. Tyler Durden also gave Jack a presence: fearlessness. American men, we like to come across as fearless. Much of the dumbassery in the otherwise friendly Harley culture springs from that desire. We live under the delusion that having nothing to lose is terrifying to would-be assailants. So we act like we have nothing to lose.
It’s a silly notion. Reading the accounts of men who survived the Normandy landings, they were all terrified. And none of them had to pretend they weren’t. Is the fact that a squad car, ambulance, and fire truck can appear within minutes to protect us from the slightest risk making American men unsure of our courage?
Truth is, a man who has nothing to lose may be intimidating, but the most dangerous thing in the world is a mother defending her children. A father protecting his family. A Marine willing to give his life for a fellow marine. It’s always something outside of ourselves, isn’t it? But our culture tells us to have it our way. To pursue our passions. To listen to the music that makes us perform better than ourselves. Could having nothing to live for but our own gratification, self-expression, or self-realization be another cause of our posing?
When we first bought our Harleys, my friends and I were determined not to be posers. We’d seen them at Sturgis. Couples who trailered their Harleys on the back of air-conditioned pick-ups, then stopped one town away to unload the bike and change into their biker outfits, the rider having already grown a 5 day stubble, his passenger having already applied her temporary tattoos.
We refused to be posers. So we bought the service manuals and worked on our own bikes. Joined the forums. Called each other with questions. Some of us tore the engine down and rebuilt it better. We lived inside the aftermarket catalogs. And we rode.
We rode across the country and back. Some of us rode to Alaska. We rode through some hellish storms. We made sure our trips included rain and a healthy dose of misery. We were ecstatic if we got snowed on, or the temps climbed over 100 degrees. We rode early in the Spring, and late into Fall, and rode in Winter when the roads were clear. We bought expensive chrome to customize our bikes and embrace our freedom, just like the Motor Company told us to. We thought we were these guys. And maybe we were. During our 1-week vacations and on weekends.
But I’m not one of those guys, not really. I can’t ride where the road leads me because I have to be back at work in the morning. I have a desk job. Bills. I spent 20 years raising a family, mowing my lawn, and being polite to the neighbors. I wear a real helmet, ear plugs, and protective motorcycle gear. And I suffer from a distinct lack of brand loyalty.
I can’t even pretend that I don’t have anything to lose.
Which leaves me wondering what gave birth to my particular Tyler Durden. Just like Jack, Nemo, Lester Burnham, and a lot of men earning a living in Corporate America, I am disoriented. But I’m not searching for an identity. I’m reluctant to accept the one I’ve got.
There I was.
Somewhere in the Southwest.
Riding into a 30 mph headwind.
My teeth grit. The ligaments on my neck popping. My arms gripping the bars with the desperation of a monkey losing a tug of war for a clump of bananas. Between the wind, the engine vibration, the lumpy road, and the semis passing me, my brain was turning to mush.
Little did I know the damned wind would push and shove me the whole way to Cortez. And then to Tropic. And Zion. And Death Valley. I would get a brief tail wind on 395, and then it would be all headwinds again all the way to Los Gatos. I wouldn’t have minded, except that I didn’t have a windshield.
It’s not that I’m opposed to windshields on principle. It’s that they suck. There have been exceptions. Like the Mighty K. A 2004 BMW K1200RS. My summer fling while living in New England. I’d dropped into a BMW dealership to keep a friend company, and I was smitten. The faster that thing went, the better the wind flowed around me. The Mighty K would have been ideal for the West.
Since I violate the Harley uniform guidelines by wearing earplugs and a big old Arai 3/4 helmet, Harley fairings and windshields rattle my eyeballs. On account of that acoustic effect that occurs when the kids open the window in the back seat.
You ‘re too sensitive
Tyler Durden muttered in my ear before asking the Service Manager at San Jose Harley if he had any rope.
We’d stopped there to install a new set of tires since I’d worn my old ones down to the nubs. It took a couple of hours on account of the rear wheel on the Softail Custom is a bear to get on and off. The first time I changed my own I threw a lot of tools around the garage before I managed to fit that 200 mm tire in between the brake caliper and everything else that’s in the way. Ever since, I’ve allowed the dealer to enjoy that particular pleasure.
While I was waiting, I wandered into the showroom, which is why the dealerships locate it next to the Service Department. A dozen shiny new touring Harleys, developed as part of Project Rushmore (a nod to the rebirth of the Indian Motorcycle Company), were lined up beside each other, sparkling. Harley claims that Project Rushmore improved the notoriously bad airflow around the new touring bikes, among other things.
Baggers are for for babies
Tyler would know. That’s my 2004 Road Toad. My first attempt at improving wind and comfort on long rides. The fairing was as big as it looks in the picture. Maybe bigger.
The salesman ignored Tyler and pointed out the appeal of the Street Glide. It’s a bonafide touring bike, he explained, but it’s still cool, like a 1969 Lincoln with suicide doors.
Tyler tied a knot into the rope the service manager had requisitioned for him. While he did that, I thought about telling the salesman that when I want breakfast, I pound my fists against my chest and my woman brings me breakfast. But the truth is, I’m the one who makes the coffee in the morning, both with cream, hers without sugar. I gently wake her with the aroma. Then we sit on the bed and talk about our feelings.
“Why don’t you take it for a test ride?” The salesman asked, handing me the keys.
All salesmen must die
“Oh, I couldn’t,” I said sheepishly, ” I still have to ride my bike back to Colorado.”
It toppled onto the silver one next to it, but the second bike was so massive it managed to hold up the first one.
Undaunted, Tyler walked to the other side of the lineup, lifted the Red Sunglo and Vivid Black Ultra Glide Limited off its sidestand, and pushed it over. This time it worked. Like a stack of dominoes, one 900 lb Project Rushmore behemoth after another toppled onto the one beside it until they hit the first two, which almost, almost managed to hold up the pile, but in the end gave in and toppled over with a loud crash.
Now you have room to get some real motorcycles in your store
Tyler handed the keys back to the salesman, who accepted them, standing there, as stunned as the sales manager who had just run out of his office.
That day’s distance from Springdale, Utah to Stovepipe Wells, in Death Valley, was 433 miles. Elapsed time was 8 hours, including a one hour detour into North Las Vegas to get my expense receipts scanned, on account of Tyler made me blow that off before heading out.
The picture of the Harley Davidson Ultra Limited is courtesy of www.autoevolution.com.
That picture of me is the last time I was cool. And I don’t mean James Dean cool.
Turns out, James Dean was killed not far from Paso Robles, where Route 46 and Route 41 intersect. The Texaco station at the intersection of Route 46 and Route 33 has the whole story. They say it was the last place he stopped before his wreck. They also have a re-created Dust Bowl truck in a display among the pistachios, walnuts, and maple-covered almonds. They found it somewhere, cleaned it up, added the utensils and other items the Okies carried, and brought it into the store. They even had a picture of the same truck to guide their efforts.
Looking over the old truck and reading about the difficulties the people fleeing the Dust Bowl endured, I felt like a wimp for whining about the harsh suspension and non-existent wind protection of my Softail Custom. They even had a statue of Grannie holding a plate of cookies. She would have made a good biker Momma.
Missus Fender Bunny is a good biker Momma, too, though I’m not 100% certain that’s what she aspires to. Why I subject her to such abuse I’ll never know. I’ll ask my priest, if he’ll still speak to me.
It was 108 when we got to Baker, California. When she pulled off her helmet, I could see that she was suffering from heat exhaustion. We got in the shade and sipped a little warm water. Wet her scarf and put it over her head. After a while we went inside to enjoy the A/C. You have to be judicious with the A/C, or when you walk back out, it feels like a furnace. After a while she started looking better, so she stood up, clapped her hands, and bought a can of Red Bull.
When we got back on the bike it was 109. Did I mention that she has relatives in Oklahoma?
We rode from San Simeon to Las Vegas in just under 12 hours. Total mileage was 420 miles, more or less.
Riding the PCH would be a sportbiker’s dream if you weren’t afraid of flying off the edge of the road and plummeting to your death against the rocks a thousand feet below. That’s a lot of time to think. And wonder, as you spin around the bike and the bike around you, whether you still have a chance to make it, and whether that tiny chance could be increased by landing with the bike beneath you or, since it’s likely to explode in a yellow ball of skin-searing flame, whether you should push it away from you now, while you still have a chance to land a prudent distance from it. In the end you don’t push it away from you, because holding on to anything, even a motorcycle tumbling through the air, is more comforting than facing a horrifying death alone. Which makes you wonder, the last instant before you hit the rocks, whether there is indeed a God, and whether he is kind enough to forgive you for not having believed in him. Or Her. It had better not be a Her on account of that Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Scorned thing.
No, the PCH is best taken at a measured pace. So you can stop and enjoy its hidden treasures, like the cove in the picture above. And take the time to thank God for making Her world such a pretty place. Just in case.
I left Stovepipe Wells at 5:50 am. I had to cover 500 miles, so I promised myself I wouldn’t stop for pictures.
I had taken a bunch on the way in, anyway, including the one of the Devil’s Cornfield, above. The cornfield lies at 150 feet below sea level, and the road keeps going downhill from there.
The road from Stovepipe Wells heads more or less West, and straight up. Stovepipe Wells is at sea level. If you get there from the East, like I did, you’ll get to almost 300 feet below sea level. I couldn’t stop imagining whales and schools of yellow fin swimming in the air over my head.
Anyway, once you leave Stovepipe Wells and head West just after the toll road in the pic, it’s straight up. No curves. Just up. Until you hit 4500 feet above sea level. At which point, if it’s 6:00 am, you realize how cold it is. I stopped and put on some warm gear.
Turns out, Death Valley is actually two valleys. Once you get up to the top of the West valley, you get to go down it. It is blessed with a 9% grade.
You’re probably not that interested in the algorithm for calculating the amount of fuel left in a Harley’s gas tank, but to give you a rough idea, when I hit the top of the ridge between the valleys, my gauge indicated 72 miles left in the tank. Five miles later, when I hit the bottom of the second valley, I magically had 113 miles worth of fuel.
The road leading out of the second valley is a sportbiker’s dream. Beautiful curves. But I was distracted by the vistas. The sun was peeking over the East ridge, lighting up just pieces of the landscape around me, leaving others dark. To make it even more interesting for somebody who hadn’t sworn off photography for the day, the sky to the West was dark grey. So the sun lit up the desert in front of me, making the Joshua trees pop. It was gorgeous.
I wasn’t able to post last night because here, in Silicon Valley, the wifi is slower than in the middle of Nowhere, Utah. The farmers in Wenatchee ship their best apples to other states, where they’re more precious. I suppose Silicon Valley exports most of the broadband it grows, too.
Total distance 524 miles, including about 30 extra because somebody missed a turn. Elapsed time: 11 hours. Will post more about Zion and other parts of the trip when I can find some bandwidth.