"I'm so dry I can't spit."
Death Valley, California in the summer pops the mercury at over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Ground temperatures reach 200 degrees. It is not a place for a sane bicycle touring rider. But who said anyone bicycle touring was sane?
My partner Doug and I headed north on a border to border, Mexico to Canada ride in early April. At that time of the year, moderate temperatures make bicycle riding a pleasure. It rarely exceeds 90 degrees in the desert.
We reached the cutoff of the Henry Wade exit at the southern end of the valley on Route 127. We had a choice of a downward inclined dirt, gravel and sandy road into the south end of the park--or we could stay on the pavement and climb three passes of 2,200 feet, 3,100 feet and 1,800 feet to get into the side entrance of the valley. We opted for the shortcut on gravel.
Henry Wade was a miner who had escaped death in the valley by taking this route in 1849. He saved his family.
It was a wonder how anyone could take a team of horses over sand and washouts. The heat bore down on us. I imagined Henry Wade driving his team over this desolate land. How he made it in the scorching heat was a miracle. We checked our five gallons of water and figured we could make it to the paved road 30 miles north of us. Late in the afternoon, we decided to camp so we could get an early start in the morning.
At dawn, we prepared ourselves for what was going to be an ordeal. We each had four gallons of water left after breakfast, and felt we could reach the main road where we could flag a motorist if needed. At 7:00 AM, we headed into Death Valley. We began the ride in cool air, but that quickly turned hot, dusty and dry. The first hour we had a terrible time pushing our mountain bikes through the sand. We rode into it and got stuck and had to push the bikes out. At times, the sand swallowed the tires up to the spoke nipples. We might as well have been riding over a sticky topping of cheese pizza--still baking in the oven.
The next two hours the heat intensified. On the east and west of us were the Black Mountains and the Panamint Range. Erosion gullies cut the summits into vertical lines. Telescope Peak on our left rose to a snowcapped 11,049 feet. Colors abounded throughout the valley. Brown and black sedimentary rock swept down in front of us. Purple canyons accented with yellow layers of rock streamers contrasted with the white salt flats of the ancient dry lake bed on the valley floor. Sagebrushes dotted the terrain along the road.
By twelve noon, I was struggling, and the heat had climbed to over one hundred degrees. The ruts beat-up my butt. When I cranked on the smooth road, it was too soft. Where it was hard, it was rippled and pounded me. Fatigue gripped my body. I was on a treadmill, not going anywhere, no matter how much I cranked the pedals. The landscape changed but it was like someone came over to my house to show pictures of their trip into the desert, but each picture was an exact copy of the last. After seeing five hours of the same picture, I wondered what was the point? I got weaker and weaker. I yelled at my bike to stay up in the sand. I yelled at the road. The coyotes, if they were listening, heard a lot of bad language that day. Not only that, I gulped warm water at an alarming rate.
"How much water do you have left?" Doug asked.
"About a gallon," I said. "It can't be that much further to the pavement."
"Probably not," he said. "I swear it must be over a hundred and ten degrees right now. It's just sucking the moisture right out of my body. I can't feel myself sweating but I know I'm losing water fast. My mouth feels like I'm chewing cotton. My tongue sticks to the top of my mouth. My teeth are even dry! My water is almost too hot to drink and I'm still thirsty after I drink."
"Someone's coming toward us," I said. "Let's flag them down and ask for water."
We watched a dust cloud approach from the north. Minutes later, a man and woman from Alaska stopped to chat.
"Do you guys have any idea how hot it is?" the lady asked as she rolled down her window.
"We figure it must be over a hundred degrees and zero humidity," Doug answered.
"It's a hundred and ten and supposed to go up to a hundred and fourteen." she said. "It's the hottest April on record."
"What's the chance you have some water?" I asked. "We're getting low."
"Sure," the man said, grabbing a five-gallon jug. "You guys got to be pretty courageous or pretty nuts to be bicycling on a day like this."
"We didn't plan on being in a heat wave," Doug said.
The couple talked about their experiences in Alaska when the temperature was 60 below zero for a week. The man said his spit froze before it hit the ground. They didn't like this heat.
"Would you boys like something cold and wet?" she asked.
"You don't need to ask twice," Doug said.
"Here's a couple of cold pears from our cooler," she said. "That ought to keep you going for awhile."
"Thanks," I said.
They left in a cloud of dust.
"Can you believe it Doug?" I said, munching on my cold pear. "Here we are in the middle of the hottest spot on earth, the lowest place in the Western hemisphere, and on the hottest day on record in April--and we're chowing down on cold pears."
"I'm glad they came by with water, or we could be in trouble," Doug said. "Let's get moving. We still have more than 50 miles to Furnace Creek."
We pounded the pedals into the relentless heat. My hands were sore from gripping the bars. The road bashed my butt. It's times like this that misery is the only way to describe the ordeal. It was miserable. Heat waves shimmered across the salt flats below us as we pedaled our way deeper into the Death Valley.
We finally hit the black top. What a relief, except it was two o'clock and getting hotter. More heat waves rose off the pavement, and the mountains changed texture as the sun dropped in the west. The Black Mountains reached into the sky like piles of coal while the Panamint Range waxed into blue mist.
The road wound around an alluvial washout on the eastern side of the valley. We kept pedaling downhill past Desolation Canyon. Hunger caught up with us at the Ashford Mill. It was a mud building in the middle of the valley, which once processed gold ore from the Golden Mine near there. We parked our bikes by one of the picnic tables near the sight. As we prepared lunch, we sat in a blistering hot wind, with nothing but rock and sand surrounding us for miles. We might as well have landed on the moon.
We prepared our usual fare of wheat bread, tomatoes, green peppers, avocados and mustard. By the time, we had cut everything up and made a sandwich, the slices of bread had turned into crackers. Doug bit into his sandwich.
"My bread is dry," he said. "The heat is turning my sandwiches into crust and instant 'heat dried' food. I can't believe how hot it is."
"I feel like I'm in a microwave oven," I said. "Let's get out of here."
"Where do you think we're going go with any great speed?" Doug asked.
We finished our lunch, including our tepid water. What I wouldn't give for a gallon of ice cold orange juice!
We headed up the valley still going down below sea level. A few bushes grew and some grasses, but it was desolation for 12 miles across the valley. We rode along the salt flat basin of what was once 90-mile-long Lake Manley. By 4:00 p.m., we neared the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. It's called Badwater and a shallow pond shimmered in the breeze under the torrid heat. We wondered why the water wasn't sucked into the sky from evaporation. Being spring fed, it maintained a constant depth even in the hottest days of the summer.
It was ungodly hot. I sometimes wonder why I put myself in such miserable conditions. It was so hot I could barely breathe. My skin was caked with salt and my mouth was so dry I couldn't spit. My butt was sore and my hands fatigued from the dirt road. My bottles were full of hot water and the sun bore down with no mercy. As if that wasn't enough, the temperature kept rising. It was a hundred and fourteen degrees. Yet, I put myself there, because that is the nature of adventure. No matter what the price in physical discomfort, I knew I would be fine. The heat was not going to kill me, but it was going to give me a reference point for comfort. I was sweaty and dirty, but that was only for a short time. The price that day was the feeling of being in the fires of hell. The heat waves licked at my body and there was no escape.
But with these terrible conditions, the other side of the coin was the emerging moment; a time when I could move through this one place on earth and be a part of it. I could see snow on Telescope Peak 12 miles away and 11,000 feet up. That valley may be a prisoner to the sun and heat, but it also offered majestic, eerie scenery--something I couldn't touch, feel or smell unless I was there. Was it worth it? Only one answer--give me my bike and the open road.
"Frosty," Doug yelled. "Come over here. This lady has a nice cold Orange Crush for us."
"Thanks a million," I said, walking up to her van. "You can't imagine how much I've dreamed of a cold drink for this entire day."
"Yeah I can," she said. "I've biked across America in the heat of the summer."
By now we had drunk four gallons of water, but we hadn't urinated once. Back on the bikes, we talked about the 114 degrees of heat and how great the soda pop tasted. We headed north, cranking hard with a good tailwind. We passed the Devil's Golf Course, Artist's Drive, the Natural Bridge and Mushroom Rock. The snaking highway wound along the side of Death Valley up and down shallow grades until we reached an oasis at Furnace Creek. In the middle of this valley of scorching heat, date palms! A pool! Cold orange juice! I drank nearly a half-gallon of juice without lifting my lips from the jug. This was paradise on the other side of misery.
As I dove into the pool, the whole day's journey washed away into pleasure.
Furnace Creek was an oasis created by 2,000 gallons of water per minute flowing out of a rock fissure in the mountains above the valley. We visited the Borax museum, mining implements exhibit, and Harmony Borax Works. A day of rest and sightseeing was greatly enjoyed.
A day later, we awoke at 6:00 a.m., but didn't get started for two hours. Heat waves shimmered across the asphalt. The black pavement weaved its way along the valley floor, always vanishing over the next alluvial fan. Lots of washes and rocks dotted the ground around us. In twenty miles, we passed large sand dunes and passed the Devil's Cornstalks, an area where bushes survive the heat by bunching up together to conserve their water. Nature is an odd force. It creates deadly, horrid conditions and then allows plants and animals to evolve in that area to live precariously. Nature encourages life, but tries to make it die of thirst or starvation at the same time.
At Stovepipe Wells, we reached five feet above sea level and began climbing. We crossed a large alluvial fan at 1,000 feet of elevation. The road snaked higher, with a steeper grade to 2,000 feet. We wound our way along dry washouts until the road narrowed into a single canyon making its way up and out of Death Valley. In Granny gear, we cranked up that incline on our way to 6,000 feet. With the altitude, the temperature released its grip as if we had walked out of an oven and into an air-conditioned restaurant. Near dusk, we camped on a rock ledge at 5,800 feet. We saw the final grade ahead of us, but we were content because the temperature was a cool 60 degrees.
Behind us, Death Valley stretched out in shadows moving across the canyons and a half-moon cut its quiet splendor into the darkening sky. A coyote howled. Our campfire crackled in the hushed evening air while rice and vegetables steamed on the flames. We were camped on a high plateau away from civilization. Doug and I were out in the middle of nowhere.