Some people like it, some people don’t. We are talking about the desert.
Ken Layne, the Desert Oracle
Conventional wisdom asserts that visiting the desert in the winter or spring is preferable to a summer visit. That leaves the fall option, but a landscape brutalized by an unrelenting summer is, IMHO, less interesting than, say a fall tour of the temperate montane forests north of the Mojave. At the same time, riding a moto over icy roads is a risk since, post pubescent, I’ve abandoned. As I was commencing route planning, given that back roads to the Pacific, the Mojave, and the Sierra were all under consideration, the unsettled weather was one of the first challenges to overcome. The window of favorable conditions was narrowing.
Originally planned for a year ago, but cut down by the pandemic, it was time to put our foot on the rock and don’t stop. https://youtu.be/dGbqudQtKmw as the drums were calling…
For my riding buddy Pete and me, Covid vaccination schedules used up several weeks in January, February, and March along with yet another Mohs surgery for moi, familial obligations for nous deux, and Pete’s jury duty. Even in retirement there are considerations to which one must attend.
When at long last a launch date was chosen even a failed crown wasn’t going to deter me. I needed to shore up the loose ends of an itinerary to make this real. Our departure target of April 11 would be a week after what I fancied as most of the millennial Spring Breakers having scattered and hopefully before the onset of yet another dry and unbearably “warm” spring regime Daniel Swane (@Weather West) was predicting would begin to build. I imagined only northern climate escaping, RV motoring whiteheads would be sporting about the interstates in route to some of the more popular destinations on our itinerary leaving us the Lost Highways and G1-3 PMT’s (I’ll explain later) the loneliest roads for our preferred method of travel.
Our tour was decided to be strictly camping, eating the local fare, and riding under 300 miles a day. We would have to touch the sea, sand, and snow. I planned for a six or seven day tour depending on how much sleeping in the dirt (perhaps boondocking should campgrounds be closed with questionable availability of an occasional shower), would influence our decision making. Lucky for us all of the above worked out.
Pouring over Google satellite views of our intended route was subordinate to the Butler Motorcycle Maps criteria of Lost Highways and PMT’s (Paved Mountain Trails) and G1-3 routes. These byways are also a throwback to the roads I’ve pedalled over in another time and place and that I’m trying to reprise on the moto before riding off into the sunset.
A Butler Lost Highway [is one] of faded center lines, crumbling shoulders, and long lonely miles putting these roads in a category of their own. These are the roads that seem lost in time. It is what these roads lack that make them worth the journey.
A Butler PMT sweeps through the remote forests and mountain ranges of California that are paths of pavement that leave even the most seasoned riders searching for ways to describe their riding experience. These roads are exceptionally tight and twisty and other unique opportunities to explore the less traveled corners of California.
Those descriptions are from the editors of Butler maps. I’ll add the first of a few more categories of my own, the Jones PARoC‘s (Paved Ag Roads of California), or, two lane roads astoundingly arrow straight with right angled intersections bordered by crop obscuring sight lines and stop sign, double yellow line disregarding, pucker inducing impatient cagers of questionable sobriety trying to pass anything with ≥ 2 or ≤ 18 wheels.
Day One: Merced to Hearst San Simeon State Beach
Merced to Hearst San Simeon State Park (click on these subheads to see the Google Maps of the routes)
Our first day would include legs of familiar routes to familiar destinations we’ve come to appreciate and look forward to revisiting. From Merced, we made our way to Panoche Rd via Jones PARoC’s (CA-59 to Dos Palos, Russell Ave. to Shields, then over I-5 to Panoche Rd) to Paicines, rolling through the ag engine of the Central San Joaquin Valley into the bucolic rangelands of the Coast Ranges, where in the past we would grab a burrito. Unfortunately we did not appreciate the conviction and dedication of the cook at the Paicines General Store who was observing the Sabbath. No burritos for us.
Sadly, I did not photograph what would be a recurring theme of this trip, making new friends. As Pete and I substituted a shared Kind bar for a carne asada or carnitas burrito, three gentlemen on three bikes rolled up. One on a Triumph Tiger, another on a small displacement Honda CBR, and the third on a Yamaha XMAX scooter. I apologize for not whipping out the phone to snap a photo, something Pete and I would exam post ride…
The guy on the scooter was a dead ringer for Peter Bogdanovich. The fellow on the sport bike was in full seasoned leathers sporting a long gray braided ponytail. It was only after removing his helmet did we realize he was bald and the disembodied ponytail was attached to the back of his helmet. Once again confirming that refrain should be observed when judging the cover of a book.
The third fellow on the Tiger was apparently their spokesperson or more likely the most extroverted of the three. We exchanged the usual pleasantries of where we were from and where we were headed. Our new friends were on a day ride from Santa Cruz enjoying the CA-25, also known as the Airline Highway, on a fine spring morning. They were impressed and maybe a tad envious of our intended multi-day tour first to the coast, then across the desert, and home through the mountains. It would not be the first time we observed longing in the eyes of an imagined adventure appearing on the faces of those who would learn of our intended journey.
From Paicines, we headed south on CA-25 past the Pinnacles National Park and just past Coalinga Rd to Bitterwater where CA-25 intersects with G-13, AKA the Bitterwater Rd in San Benito County. We traveled another of these Butler PMT roads back in 2019 on the Wildflower Tour only taking PeachTree Rd that intersected with Indian Valley Rd bearing right onto Hare Canyon Rd to Lake Nacimiento.
Our new route took us through King City to G-14, Jolon Rd past Ft. Hunter Leggitt through Jolon and Martinus Corner to Lockwood where we took the Interlake Rd past the Lake San Antonio Rec Area to Nacimiento Lake Dr. Here we rode across the dam whereupon we inspected the lake’s campgrounds. Pausing for a snack at the Oak Hill Market, we decided that 80+ degrees was too warm to set up camp, and since it was a bit early in the day we opted to head to the cooler state park in San Simeon, still observing the “under 300 mile a day” criteria.
With onshore winds picking up, a very cooperative state park ranger directed us to a protected campsite despite the sandwich board sign at the entry that the campground was full. Considering we were at the end of a modest 241± mile day and the temps were in the low 60’s, our decision to abandon Lake Nacimiento was rewarded. Our new ranger friend belatedly admitted that he’d forgotten to take the sign down. The skeptic in me believed he was discouraging late Sunday afternoon campers seeking refuge to knock off a little early…
Our good fortune would be followed by another fine meal of fish and shrimp tacos at the West End Bar and Grill in Cambria. Procuring night caps, we headed back to camp to relax, reflect, and continue rehydrating.
Day Two: Saddleback Buttes State Park
San Simeon State Park to Saddleback State Park (Remember, click on these to see maps of the routes)
We awakened early, just before the roar of the cock-a-doodle-doo trash collector at the Hearst San Simeon State Park crash-bang-boomed awakened the campground from restful sleep soothed by the ocean soundscape. I was already up as is customary for a gentleman of my age and preparing water on the JetBoil for coffee. As we were breaking camp the truck pulled up to the dumpster across from our campsite. The roar of the hydraulics lifting the dumpster to empty was met with a ear-splitting metallic crash that was considerably louder than the usual ringing of dead soldiers landing in the truck’s bin characteristic of campground refuse. Upon closer inspection it seems the operator had dumped the dumpster into the bowels of his trash truck. The operator noted our witnessing the event, rolled down his window and exhorted, “I guess I’ll be taking this one with me!” and in classic Duke Kahanamoku fashion unwittingly conveyed, “Take your time – wave comes. Let the other guys go, catch another one.” Needless to say, Cambria is not Lake Nacimiento.
By the time we had finished unpacking our gear to hit the road to our next campsite, we rolled past our intrepid trash collector and exchanged, “It never happened” gestures, yet another friend, though nameless, encountered.
A modest day to Saddleback State Park Campground east of Palmdale from Hearst San Simeon State Park would be roughly ±249 miles. From the itinerary: We’ll need to get provisions in Palmdale for our destination for the night at Saddleback State Park Campground which is 24 miles east of Palmdale at the original Joshua Tree Monument headquarters and campgrounds established in 1958 that in 1994 became the Joshua Tree National Park southeast some 116 miles thanks to Bill Clinton. I’m into details.
We wound our way on Butler PMT’s through the hills on Nacimiento Lake Rd east on CA-46 to Vineyard Drive crossing US-101 in Paso Robles. Reaching Templeton we made our way south on El Palomar/Cripple Cr Rds with a short east on CA-41 where we joined nearby Creston/LaPanza Rds south eventually intersecting with CA-58 at Wilson’s Corner. Got that? Leaving the foothills, we continued east on CA-58 through the Topaz Solar Farm into, with little or no irony, oil country on the northern edge of the Carrizo Plain before entering Kern County foothills to CA-33 near McKitterick. Did I mention that I’m into details?
A second Jones category of roads, known as OCPRoC;’s (Oil Country Paved Roads of California), two lane roads astoundingly arrow straight with right angled intersections bordered by pumpjack and pipeline obscuring sight lines, stop sign and double yellow line disregarding, pucker inducing impatient cagers of questionable sobriety and mental health trying to pass anything with ≥ 2 or ≤ 18 wheels, most of which, filled with explosive fluids.
Energy, whether fossil or photovoltaic is where you find it, eh? Time to stop for nalgas relief, hydration, and a Kind energy bar…
Fortunately the market was open. The historic McKittrick Hotel, yet another missed opportunity to sample local fare, forced us to purchase electrolytes to replenish our hydration stores at the hot and cold deli where we met our next new “friend”. This new “friend”, who remains nameless, was, well, let’s just say, interesting.
As we made our hydration transactions a woman introduced herself by stating she had just contributed $20 to the humble proprietor of the McKittrick Market to, “Stop the pipeline!” She continued to tell me that she was fleeing Los Angeles as a Donald Trump underground gas/Soilent Green perplexity had devastated the city and the entire population of Los Angeles was beating a hasty retreat from the carnage. She then described how she had driven her late model Mini Cooper on the right side emergency lanes of the freeways to escape the bumper-to-bumper fleeing Angelenos, eventually finding solace in, of all places, McKittrick where pump jacks outnumber residents 1000 to 1 and apparently where the opportunity to claim a $20 tax write-off donation presented itself. I was speculating about the tax write-off. You gotta love the gateway to the desert where the irony:weirdness coefficient begins to increase geometrically.
We stayed south on CA-33 through Derby Hills to Taft. I had recently watched a Huell Howser, California’s Gold episode on the Taft Oil Workers’ Monument and made a point of stopping.
We continued south on CA-33 in the heart of the westside oil country in route to Maricopa where we then took CA-168 south to Hudson Ranch Rd, just across from Soda Cr. Rd that bisects the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Continuing on Hudson Ranch Rd, an emphatic gold Butler Lost Highway/PMT G1 route lay before us, through the Bitter Cr National Wildlife Refuge and up and up through the Los Padres National Forest to Pine Mt. Club (elev. 5,554 ft). There we saw our first rapidly melting north facing patches of snow from a weather system that recently contributed to our delayed departure. On down to Frazier Park (elev. 4,639 ft) where we stopped to delayer before descending further to Lebec and the warmer eastern San Bernardino County where, the weather having sorted itself out, keeping our foot on the rock, couldn’t stop us now.
From Lebec, we skirted I-5 on Ralphs Ranch Rd. through Gorman where Gorman Post Rd. took us to CA-138 (Lancaster Rd.) then on to the Old Ridge Rt. Rd to Pine Pine Canyon and Elizabeth Lake Rds, pure Butler PMT’s.
Entering the outskirts of Palmdale we encountered the most urban and desert (urbert or desban?) environs of the trip navigating over crowded busy streets teaming with post Covid shutdown revival. After a fine meal at Los Originales restaurant and a quick stop for post ride beverages observing the three R’s of relaxation, reflection, and rehydration, we sought our second night’s accommodations after 249± miles of mostly Butler PMT/Lost Highways G1’s and G2’s mixed in with a few (and now for a third Jones category road) PDRoC‘s (Paved Desert Roads of California-description follows), eventually landing at the Saddleback Buttes State Park Campground.
There our new friend, the campground host Gary, and Pete shared Airstream pleasantries. It seems one must be prepared for pleasant conversation when one travels, especially if you want to make new friends. Perhaps the pandemic and shut-down of public intercourse fueled the hyper-willingness to engage in polite casual conversation with someone other than your roommate, partner, kids or dogs in lockdown. We were well equipped to exchange light playful, sometimes teasing, remarks; essentially good natured raillery centering on trailer/moto banter. This is much better gambit to ensure meeting new friends than the dystopian ramblings of a wacked-out Mini-Cooper driving schizophrenic…
Clockwise from upper left below, our Nomadlandish campground host’s ’62 Globetrotter, our recreational mobile Nomad camp, and our first (of many) desert UFO sightings at sunset.
The cabana under which we pitched camp provided a windbreak of sorts as throughout the night gusts would rattle our tents. Having just listened to the first six episodes of the Lost Hills podcast the week before that explored a series of strange shootings at a state park in Malibu, one of which ended with the murder of a 35-year-old father in front of his two kids, prepared me for an uneasy night in an isolated desert campground. The podcast by Dana Goodyear is centered around the murder of Tristan Beaudette, a father who was killed, shot while asleep in his tent, June 22nd, 2018 while camping with his two young daughters in Malibu Creek State Park. Although there were no witnesses or suspects, after Beaudette’s death, other people started coming forward with stories of being shot at near the same campground.
All I could think of is how far away Malibu is from Palmdale and and how 2018 isn’t 2021 and that a suspect had eventually been arrested, though he claimed to be innocent. That wasn’t enough when I was awakened by the crunching of footsteps in the desert sand around four A.M….
Day 3: Joshua Tree National Park
Day 3 was intended to be a short ride to Joshua Tree National Park (±126 mi) which would allow time to find a campsite, if enough spring break millennials had scattered, and explore the park. Hopefully it wouldn’t be unbearably hot or windy. The route took us through Mojave Heights, Victorville, Apple Valley, Lucerne Valley, and Flamingo Heights on CA-247 also known as Old Woman’s Spring Rd. Check out the Google Maps link above.
These roads, similar to the Jones PARoC’s classification, might best be described as Paved Desert Roads of California or PDRoC’s. I may just be splitting hairs with the Butler folks who might argue that these are simply Lost Highways. The romanticism of a Lost Highway is misplaced on these roads that also share features with PARoC’s, namely, two lane roads astoundingly arrow straight with right angled intersections, sometimes paved often not, bordered by mirage obscuring sight lines and stop sign, yellow double line disregarding, pucker inducing impatient cagers and semi drivers of questionable sobriety trying to pass anything with ≥ 2 or ≤ 18+ wheels. At least if a threat was approaching one of these intersections from a dirt road, we’d have a warning dust cloud.
Upon arriving in Joshua Tree, I made a point of dropping by the Desert Oracle office to give Ken Layne a whazzup. If you’ve followed any of Sisyphus’s ramblings, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of Ken Layne and his Mojave ramblings, cast of recurring characters, and RedBlueBlackSliver soundscapes. You too can enjoy his Desert Oracle, “cult-favorite radio show and print periodical based in Joshua Tree that explores everything from the political to the paranormal.” According to his bio in Outside magazine, Layne left an influential career in digital media to create the Desert Oracle and his cast of characters has stretched my jowls in appreciation of their tongue-in-cheekiness about things Art Bell never imagined. Check it all out at https://www.desertoracle.com
Alas, Mr. Layne was traveling elsewhere in the Mojave and his office, right on the busy Twentynine Palms Highway, was deserted. He even took down the Desert Oracle sign. Must be like Tom Bodett leaving the light off at an abandoned Motel 6.
Since daylight was burning, we headed up Park Blvd to the West Park Entrance station of the National Park to a rather small “conga-line” as Pete refers to the queue that clutters the entrances to National Parks these days. Unlike other parks, the small printed 8.5 x 11 sign in the entrance station window declaring “Campground Full” would not deter us. What, the feds can’t manage to come up with a sandwich board? When in my best desperate but kindly grandpa, yet dirtbag appearing entreaty, I persuaded the young attendant to suggest where we might find respite, she dismissively replied, “Try the Hidden Valley Campsite, it’s iffy, but it’s non-reservation.”
Arriving at the campground a more official permanent “Campground Full” sign would not deter us from taking the one way road through the campground to exit, though crestfallen. But as serendipity was infusing the gentle desert breezes, the first of two of our newest best friends stepped onto the road and waved us to stop. When Andreas asked if we were looking for a place to camp, even though I really couldn’t hear his invitation wearing earplugs and head nestled in helmet, I was elated to accept whatever it was he was offering.
Ditching the gear so I could now actually hear, Andreas’s pal Pablo graciously offered his adjacent campsite for us to pitch our tents. It seems the common denominator of motorcycles compelled our comrades’ generosity. Days earlier the gentlemen had located two campsites adjacent to one another using Andreas’s strategy to pester campers who appeared to be packing up early in the morning to claim their campsites in the struggle of age old first-come-first-served campsite homesteading. They had decided they needed the two spaces for their separate vehicles, but were only using the one space for socializing.
Having settled into our campsite, Pete and I set off to ramble along the Hidden Valley Nature Trail.
Returning from our ramble, thirsty and peckish, we offered to compensate our hosts for their generosity to pick up anything they might need from town, though they declined our offer. Pablo did request chamomile tea and since I just happened to have brought along some Sleepytime along, we were able to humbly thank him with the slightest barter. The dinner hour approached and the fumes of our Victorville Denny’s breakfast were in dire need of a burrgurr and electrolytes, so we headed back to the millennial vortex at the Joshua Tree Saloon . Little did I know that delicious desert burrgurrs would sustain us over the next three days…
After dinner and beverage procurement we returned to the campsite to once again pay tribute to the 3-R’s of relaxation, reflection, and rehydration. The setting sun and the rising waxing crescent moon set the mood while the Sleepytime brewed next door and the last of our remaining electrolytes were consumed. This is when the the first of dozens of UFO’s appeared in the night sky as coyotes serenaded…
Prior to departing in the morning, we paused to share more pleasantries about where we had come from and where we were headed with our new friends. We learned that Andreas was a photographer and property management exec and he and Pablo were from Huntington Beach. They had met at a recent Noobs Rally in Death Valley that Pablo was covering for ADVMoto and that Andreas was participating in on his KTM 790 Adventure R. Amusing tales of past travels were exchanged as well as an hilarious account of how Andreas arrived in the US from Austria, his native home. Upon returning home I was entertained by a piece Pablo had written on ADVMoto about how he used a Zero electric moto to supplement his Covid-dormant acting income as a two-wheeled Doordasher.
We bid farewell to our gracious hosts after exchanging contact info. Andreas, Pete and Pablo posed for the scrapbook and Andreas, a professional photographer captured our departure.
Day 4: Across the Mojave Preserve to Shoshone
The roads across the Mojave Preserve are wide open with few curves, few towns, and fewer services. These are classic Butler Lost Highways… Forgotten towns like Amboy, Cadiz, Essex, Kelso, Cima Goffs, Baghdad, Ragtown, Ivanpah, Tecopa, Zzyzx, and Shoshone are spread across this great expanse of BLM lands, the Mojave National Preserve, and the Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks. Once variously thriving centers of mining and railroads are now left to the dreams and aspirations of folks who don’t mind driving for hours for a loaf of bread or gallon of milk. More likely a carton of cigarettes and a quart or two of bourbon, scotch and a twenty-four pack of Miller. Oh, and a Lotto ticket preserving the, “I seen the elephant” respect for the past.
Getting an early start seems to be the conventional wisdom. Hitting the Jones DPRoC from Joshua Tree, we rode on east CA-62, the Twentynine Palms Hwy, before heading north on the Butler Lost Highways of Goodwin Rd and over Sheephole Pass (el. 2,307′) through the Bristol Dry Lake on the Old Amboy Rd to the Amboy Crater and Roy’s Motel and Cafe.
Then from Roy’s it was a short hop east on historic Route 66 for a few miles before taking Kelbaker Rd over Granite Pass (el.4,024′) connecting Kelso with Baker. Clever name, Kelbaker, eh? Now we were deep into the Mojave National Preserve.
Regarding this oasis, Kelso, from Wiki:
Kelso is a ghost town and defunct railroad depot in the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County. It was named after railroad worker John H. Kelso, whose name was placed into a hat along with two other workers to decide the name of the town. The town was built in 1905 specifically as a railroad station along the rail line between Utah and Los Angeles, originally called “Siding 16,” because of its location and nearby springs that provided abundant water.
Starting off as what was a simple train depot in the 1920s, the town of Kelso boomed briefly to as many as 2000 residents in the 1940s, when borax and iron mines opened nearby. Gold and silver were also discovered in the nearby hills of what became known as the Kelso district. The town shrank again when the mines closed after about a decade.
Kelso was a base of operations for the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, connecting track of Union Pacific Railroad, to which the SPLA&SL had negotiated trackage rights, with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway east-west line to the south. Here, trains were watered and “helper” locomotives were attached to assist the regular trains in climbing the steep Cima Hill. The distance between Las Vegas and the connection with the Santa Fe line at Daggett was too far for trains without a meal car, so Kelso was a convenient spot for a restaurant stop.
About 1944 the railroad brought in an old strap iron jail (above) to detain local drunks. It is now on display just outside the Kelso Depot temporarily housing a visiting sober-minded lad.
The next stop en route to Shoshone was Baker where Kelbaker Rd crosses I-15 and becomes US-127 that would take to Death Valley Junction the following day.
The town of Baker is frequently used as a stop for food and fuel by drivers on Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Baker is noteworthy for primarily two reasons:
1) It is the site of a vacant, 223-bed for-profit Cornell prison that had experienced escapes in August and November 1995 and two on July 15, 1997. The prison also experienced a major riot on December 2, 2003, four weeks before it was temporarily closed. It was permanently closed on December 25, 2009, and,
2) Baker is home to what is proclaimed the World’s Tallest Thermometer.
Baker used to be noteworthy for three things, but the “World Famous” Mad Greek Cafe is now closed, no doubt a victim of Covid, and Alien Fresh Jerky isn’t quite as noteworthy since Nevada has cornered alien chic.
From Baker we pressed on to Shoshone after a quick inspection of the Tecopa Hot Springs which, despite the Brewery & BBQ, temps were warming and the wind was whipping, and there were no trees to shelter our humble ripstop abodes….
We arranged for a campsite at the Shoshone RV Park having logged around 200 miles. From the outside the campground didn’t look like much but once inside it was agreed to be our favorite campground northeast of Joshua Tree. At least until we got to Lone Pine which is northwest of Joshua Tree. There was electricity to charge our hungry devices and showers along with a flowing ditch fed by water from the Amargosa River and we met new friends!
After a short stroll into town we enjoyed a delightful burrgurr at the Crowbar. There’s an interesting aside to the story behind Shoshone. The town is owned lock, stock, and barrel by Susan Sorrells and her husband including the Crowbar and the campground and RV Park. There’s an article at https://mojaveproject.org/dispatches-item/reimagining-the-amargosa/ that provides a facinating backstory. I imagine the Crowbar rocks on a Friday night. It was hump day and the modest crowd we joined was decidedly relaxed and reflective while rehydrating.
Indeed, making new friends is a theme of this trip and I’d like to introduce Tasha and Mark who pulled into the campground after dark in an RV with their four children, all 10 and younger after being on the road for the better part of a day. They had left their oldest daughter in charge of the younin’s back at the RV and had escaped to the fire pit near the tent camping area where Pete and I were relaxing, reflecting, and rehydrating following our meal at the Crowbar. They were like minded clutching White Claws to see our our Pale Ales in pursuit of the Three R’s and adult-hooding, sans children.
As we shared our back stories and adventures thus far we could see that far-away look overtake the couple imagining how free we were from their responsibilities of a young family and careers. Tasha was a middle school principal with whom I, a retired middle school teacher, immediately related exchanging some of our memorable experiences with the beasts who inhabit that middle school ecosystem. She was on leave, thankful to not have to manage a staff and distant learners, but now tasked to manage an infant, a toddler, and the rest of their distant learning brood.
Mark was an employee of Google whose tenure topped 18 years, hired when Google was itself an infant! His duties included managing teams monitoring and preventing misinformation and other privacy concerns. For a guy and his wife who were likely wazillionaires, they were both quite sweet and humble with with hilarious stories about life on the road with their kids and their careers. After a couple of hours they retreated to assess the damage to the RV from their free range children and we stumbled, er, rambled to our tents.
Meanwhile, back at the tents the evening winds were breezing up. The sound of the zephyrs gently rustling the fan palms and poplars with the flowing water just behind us made for a pleasant stargazing soundscape.
After midnight the gentle breeze soundscapes had escalated to a gale force, tent rattling, sleep depriving, Mojave tempest and all I could think of was falling fronds from the fan palms or branches from the poplars impaling us as they were blown from the trees. Mind you, riding a motorcycle doesn’t concern me as much as dying in some sort of a campground calamity.
Alas, we met the rising sun with nary a splinter. And there was no cock-a-doodle-do, crash, bang, boom trash collection alarm.
Day 5: Death Valley Junction, 911, Dante’s View, Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs, Dave, Keeler, and Lone Pine
What would be day in which all of the experiences would be tossed into a blender and later enjoyed as a mental smoothie began with revisiting The Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction (See a previous post from December of 2019, Riding Under a Fool Moon for context). In October of 2019, a full moon on October 13 would cast a supernatural lucence over Death Valley and so Andy, our third moto-buddy unable to make the this Mojave trip, proposed we ride across the Valley floor, bajo la luz de la luna llena. That fall trip was to be followed by a Winter/Spring ride across the desert that was cancelled, a victim of the pandemic, that we were now reprising. Before riding into the night to Beatty, NV, we stopped at the Opera House to put on every stitch of warm clothing we packed to make final the 50± mile trek to the Atomic Inn.
During the day and not in frosty darkness, Marta Beckett’s dream was brilliantly illuminated. Watch, California Dreamer: A tribute to Marta Becket, Death Valley’s ghost town ballerina, if you’re not familiar with the story: https://youtu.be/39QGMZzku0E
There’s a nifty feature on my iPhone/iWatch that can alert emergency services even when there’s no emergency. It’s constantly telling me I’ve fallen when I haven’t. It gives me an opportunity to dismiss the alert by responding that I did not fall. Nice…
Nice until you’re on the moto, screaming down US-190 headed to Furnace Creek when, by placing the phone in the clasps that keep the phone’s screen in view from the cockpit of the bike, it activates the emergency 911 notification feature. With a soft shoulder and no room on the pavement to pull over and with gloves on that prevented me from activating the touch screen, I was unable to dismiss the automated 911 call. A series of flashing messages and tones indicated that an emergency call had taken place to the Nye County Sheriff’s department in Pahrump, NV, the closest services to my location.
I immediately received a series of four telephone calls from the 911 dispatcher, apparently trying to reach me to confirm an emergency. Pahrump was the same distance, some 30 miles, as it was to Furnace Creek. I guess the feds don’t dispatch emergency 911 services from Death Valley if one hasn’t crossed into park boundaries. I was apparently only a mile or two from the park boundary when the accidental alert was transmitted. A few miles later there was a turnout at an abandoned campground, now a boondocking community. No wifi or cell service was available. How do these people watch Netflix? It wasn’t until we reached Dante’s View that I had cell service and sheepishly called the 911 dispatcher to let her know that a terrible mistake was made and I appealed to her for mercy. She casually said, “I’ll put you through to the Deputy we sent out and you can explain…” This, I felt, was worse than having to go to the Principal’s office.
After a moment or two, she got back to me and said, “I can’t reach the Deputy but no worries, this sort of thing happens all of the time…” Well, at least they didn’t send a helicopter.
Telescope Peak, 911 Squid, and Badwater and Furnace Creek in the distance, top to bottom below:
We gassed up and munched down on snacks at Furnace Creek. There we met two fellow moto comorads one on an older model VStrom and the other on a former BMW police bike like Pete’s old BMW recliner. Pleasantries were exchanged in that light playful, sometimes teasing, manner; essentially good natured raillery centering on moto banter as we traded stories of our mutual adventures. The gent on the VStrom was quick to remind us that in his experience of touring, if one tours with a group, make sure at least one of the bikes is Japanese so that when the American, German, British, or Austrian bikes break down, someone can go for help.
We met our next new friends in Stovepipe Wells where we had stopped for caffeine as the warming temps were inducing Jones DPRoC drowsiness. Drowsiness and operating machinery are incompatible so stopping to peel off the cozy sleepiness inducing layers protecting us from the morning cold as the thermometer pushed 90 degrees was imperative. Leaving my jacket and phone on the table outside of and around the corner to the market’s entry, then sitting in rocking chairs placed under the shade of the porch in front of the market to enjoy a Cold Brew (for those who do), a thoughtful young woman and her partner came around the corner to alert me to having left my phone on the table, unguarded. See what kind of careless behavior drowsiness induces!
Her curious partner expressed his interest in our motorcycles and not unlike my enthusiasm upon returning to motos, had dozens of questions about the make, model, displacement, handling, fuel range, carrying capacity, etc. of the bike as he dreamed of doing exactly what we were doing. He said he had waited long enough for his friends to commit to their shared dreams of freedom the open road offers. As those friends were dropping like flies abandoning their dreams to carers and families, he was on the brink of going for it! Apparently his family or career was worth sacrificing. Of course I recommended the California Motorcycle Safety Program to get a feel for whether he was up to challenges and risks of putting torque and horsepower between his legs before abandoning his family and career. I felt kind of creepy when I realized I had uttered that bit about “between his legs” in front of his female friend…
Bidding adieu, we jumped back onto the bikes headed for Panamint Springs Resort, a favorite Death Valley destination we’ve visited many times over the years. We considered staying in the campgrounds across from the restaurant, but it was early in the afternoon and lying around for hours in the unrelenting sun didn’t appeal to us. That’s when we met Dave from Portland.
You may have noticed a fluid spill beneath his Kymco Peoples 250cc scooter. It was a problem that developed in Death Valley involving an oil/coolant mixture that began to cause problems with the engine… running. Dave and his scooter had made it all the way from Portland. It was the informed opinion of the jack-of-all-trades Panamint Springs maintenance guy who pressure tested the engine that the People’s death was immanent. Being in a spot, Dave who noted that he was due to be in Asia in a couple of weeks was considering his options. Consensus arrived at there appeared to be three. The first was to try limping into Olancha or Lone Pine uphill 50± miles on Hwys 190 and 136. The single feature of this option that increased its worthiness is that cell reception could be had at the Father Crowley Overlook should he need rescue at the top of the most extreme slope. However, there was no place to repair the bike in either Olancha or Lone Pine, even Bishop for that matter.
The second option was “downhill” on Hwy-178 to Ridgecrest by way of the Searles Valley a distance of ±72 miles. Though this route had spottier cell reception, it was probably more heavily traveled than the route to Lone Pine and there was a Kawasaki dealership in Ridgecrest where he could get a great deal on a new bike. There was also a repair shop, but all agreed that it would cost more to repair the Peoples 250 than it was worth, perhaps even costing more to junk the bike than it was worth. You’d think with all of that useless desert out there having to pay to junk a bike in the over regulated nanny state was downright unpatriotic. Or not. I’m of the “or not” persuasion.
The third option was to have for one of the Panamint Springs residents with a pick-up haul Dave and the bike to Ridgecrest for a small fee. There he could junk the bike and catch a flight out of the Inyokern Airport to LA and back to Portland and on to his appointment in Asia. I guess we’ll have to return to Panamint to hear the end of Dave-from-Portland’s odyssey.
Visiting Keeler on the way to Lone Pine was our next stop. I’ve noted Keeler in a past post and how silver ore from Cerro Gordo was once transported across the lake when it was more than brine ponds where the ore was then loaded on a train to be taken to Los Angeles to fuel LA’s early expansion.
While Keeler was a functioning ghost town, Cerro Gordo a mere 8.5 miles east is an aspiring ghost town retreat.
In July of 2018 Brent Underwood purchased the former mining town of Cerro Gordo for $1.4 million with a group of investors. Since March of 2020 when the pandemic began to rage, Underwood has been living at Cerro Gordo full-time and has created a measure of internet fame through his YouTube videos. Here’s a recent installment: https://youtu.be/vYDNICwwOmg
I visited Cerro Gordo back in the 80’s when it was under the ownership of another proprietor. Not unlike Bodie, the buildings that serviced the mines were, and continue to be under Underwood’s care, in a state of “arrested decay”. The American Hotel burned last summer and Underwood plans to rebuild the structure based on the original blueprints he has located. If he can provide enough of a water supply to operate the town, he plans for it to become an “adventure destination”… Good luck mate!
From Keeler we whipped into Lone Pine around the Owens Lake stopping at the USFS Eastern Sierra Visitor Center to check on the best shot at getting a campsite. The Lone Pine campground was recommended and so off we rolled. Upon arriving we found the campground to be attended but not crowded and its layout conducive to semi-privacy along Lone Pine Creek. The afternoon view of Mt. Whitney from the campground as shadows began falling across the canyon portal were stunning.
Early evening moon shadows…
Day 6: Three Rivers
From Lone Pine our route took us south on US-395 to CA-14 just outside of Inyokern to CA-178. Leaving the more prosaic, Butler PMT and Lost Highway classifications as we were entering the Sierra, new Butler road classifications came to be used. This included a G1 road, described as, “These are the best motorcycle rides in Southern California. Always very dramatic and a thrilling experience. Expect high mountain passes, deep canyons, sweepers, switchbacks, and twisties.” Up Walker Pass on CA-178 and down through Canebreak and Onyx were G1 and G2 roads. A G2 road is, “Only a notch below G1, these are great motorcycle rides. Expect dramatic scenery, road action, and lots of elevation change.” Those Butler editors were on to something!
CA-155 through Weldon, South Lake, and Mountain Mesa to Lake Isabella are more typical of the arid foothill reservoir roads with shopping centers catering to Lake Isabella visitors we see in our neck of the woods. We noticed a tremendous amount of work being done around the dam at Lake Isabella. In preparing this ride report my research found an online engineering website, ENRCalifornia, describing the project as follows: “For the job, construction crews will raise both the main and auxiliary dams 16 ft to help minimize the risk of overtopping and add filters and drainage to both dams to increase dam stability. They will also construct improvements to the existing spillway, and build a new 300-ft-wide emergency spillway.” The article went on to indicate the cost at $600 million.
Damn, the Isabella Dam safety modification project is adding 16 feet at roughly the cost of $37,500,000/ft. What a deal!
At Woford Heights we rolled west on CA-155 up and over Alta Sierra. The up and over leg of the ride into Glennville is a profoundly Butler G1 and G2 class ride. Indeed! Pete and I agree that of all of the roads we’ve ridden in California, this one is a gem for its combination of surface, engineering, landscape, and remoteness.
Glennville consists of The Saddle Sore Saloon, the Highway 155 Market & Cafe, and Cedar Creek Pizza. Given that it’s smack dab in the middle of thousands of acres of cattle ranches, miles from Bakersfield and Lake Isabella, it must be supported by folks like those we met from Las Vegas who had been riding these G1 and G2 roads on their exotic sport bikes.
Dropping layers, we set off enroute to Porterville, CA-65 up to CA-198 and Three Rivers for the night. Traveling through Strathmore, Lindsay, Exeter, Yokohl, and Lemon Cove we were treated the scent of intoxicating citrus blossoms. The olfactory excitement recalled my first trip through those orchard decades ago coming down from a backcountry backpack. Sublime!
Arriving at our favorite campground in Three Rivers knowing that Potwisha and Buckeye Flat were the only two campgrounds open in the National Park and full, we arranged our campsite learning that there wasn’t enough water flowing in the Kaweah to support the local rafting businesses this season. Two years ago when Pete and I camped along the banks of the Kaweah we met Chris Baer a professional raft guide who entertained us with tales of his exploits pursuing whitewater all around the world. The Kaweah was raging at that time. Now it was but a stream without massive snowmelt to fuel its torrent…
We rode to the Totem not far from the park entrance for an excellent buurguur and beverages. Returning to camp we met our neighbors and new friends, Gabriel and Roxi, and inspected their very cool wedge tent mounted just above the bed on their Colorado crew cab complete with a Yeti cooler that could take a week in the Mojave on a single block of ice keeping the beverages at the ready for relaxing, reflecting, and rehydrating after a rigorous day of exploring.
The couple were getting into camping and from our perspective were off to a great start. They’d already mastered purchasing bundles of wood and Duraflame logs as starters. Their enthusiasm for adventure was refreshing and their curiosity about our experiences gave us yet another opportunity to retell our tales of the road that we never seem tire of sharing. But I am curious about our new younger friends… What’s with White Claw among the millennial crowd?
Day 7: Homeward Bound via the General’s Highway
Three Rivers to Merced (Click it or ticket…)
As a fitting last day of riding on our sea to sand to snow trip, we needed another complement of Butler G1 and G2 roads. The Generals Highway that connects State Route 180 and State Route 198 through Sequoia National Park, the Giant Sequoia National Monument, and Kings Canyon National Park, was just the road. Clear of snow, the road was scheduled to be opened on April 23, but when we checked with the Hideaways camp manager, she said it had just opened earlier in the week.
The Butler maps wordsmiths declare the Generals Highway thusly: There are few places in the world where Giant Sequoia and Redwood trees can be found growing together and this is one of them. With 130 curves and 12 switchbacks, vehicles larger than pickup trucks are almost absent on the 16 mile stretch from Ash Mountain to the Giant Forest.
With many more decreasing radius curves over the total 73 miles from Three Rivers to Squaw Valley and elevations of 5,000 to 8,000+ feet, it was cold. But heated grips and layers kept us cozy and negotiating the road kept us preoccupied enough to forget how cold it was. There was patchy snow over most of the route but the roads were ice free. There was little traffic and our average speed was in the neighborhood of 40 mph because of those curves and switchbacks.
Despite focusing on the road, the naturalist in me couldn’t ignore the landscape, consisting of mixed-conifer forest species including ponderosa pines, Jeffrey pines, Douglas-fir, white fir, sugar pines (the world’s tallest and most massive pine species with the longest cones of any conifer one strives to avoid running over), and giant sequoias were hard not to notice.
Beginning at upper left: The Kaweah River with Moro Rock in the background with Moro Rock left middle. To the right the lads making the downhill pilgrimage to the General. Bottom left, the General Sherman Tree, and to the right, Mt. Goddard forming the southwest boundary of the Evolution Basin in Kings Canyon National Park from the General’s Highway.
Making our way down to Piedra by way of Elwood Rd took us through the mixed lower montane zone of the western Sierra featuring ponderosa pine at the lower elevations along with California black oak, incense cedar, and some other trees (redbud, laurels, buckeye, cottonwoods) and shrubs (chamise and buckthorn) interspersed in rolling meadows of spring grasses and wildflowers (penstamin, lupine, golden poppies, Clarkia) and many more.
Making our way on the bucolic and deserted Maxon and Burroughs Valley Rds to Tollhouse and CA-168 we began to notice on the 7% grade up from Prather the massive rolling thunder of hundreds of Harley Davidsons putting their imprinture on the serene spring day perhaps headed to Shaver Lake. Reaching these lower elevations and wanting to shed layers, we stopped to fuel up at the Shell Station in Prather where by then, it seemed that the herd of Harleys was thinning out and the tranquil natural sounds of a lovely spring day, restored… (The Kawasexy’s stock exhaust has the sound of a butterfly’s wings waving)
There was one last stop in Le Grand for tacos at Marco’s Taco Truck before arriving at our respective abodes, road-weary. It was there we met what would turn out to be the last new friends on the Mojave Moto Spring Tour. Perhaps as a measure of fatigue or as Pete suggested on a recent post trip bicycle ride, “Maybe we should take more photos so we don’t forget half of what we experience…” I didn’t catch the name of the two gents who had just returned from a dog show in Madera with their merled French Bulldog (whose name neither of us could remember). These fellows were a hoot. Their scheme was to breed this little Frenchy and their description of that process, complete with animated gestures, was unforgettable. Almost as unforgettable was the prancing around mocking the Westminster Kennel style when asked if they showed the little fella. With the fruits from this enterprise to make bank, they would buy a house and retire so they could do what we were doing. But first it was necessary to get a business license and permit. I didn’t have the heart to share that our retirements were paid in full for 37+ years of salt mine drudgery. Who am I to spoil a dream?
By the way, the tacos at Marco’s are right there with Ramon’s Tacos in Planada and M&M’s in Snelling. And with that we returned to embrace our loved ones and scratch the ears of our pooches who were far more enthusiastic about our appearance and odor of seven days on the road…
“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Value
I’ve noted that my moto buddy is also my pedal buddy. When we ride bicycles together there’s lots of conversation and shared observation. We’re in a scene, completely exposed, and being social animals who aren’t obsessed with Strava, we’re freed to let our thoughts wander. When on the moto, I’m singularly focused on a full 180 degrees of of what’s in before me with awareness of what follows each minute I’m moving. Except when I’m not and the consequences of inattention jolt me into being present. Especially as my riding buddy points out.
It’s in the spirit of that coactive elastic relationship between ubiety and ubiquity that I chase the scene. When we’re on the moto, we take it all in and it filters back out once off the bikes. Certain moments are recalled but never are they as raw and perfect as when they flood one’s senses, as a part of the scene, as the scene unfolds.
“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
So we try to reconstruct the ride, as I’ve done here. The photos help, but they convey a construct of the trip. The narrative is for me an exercise in finding irony or humor in something separate from riding. I’ve tried as best as I can to look back on the ride and where it took us to inspire and entertain, to find some measure of that same fleeting presence. And so I’ve noted routes and some of pleasures, oddities, and rewards of exploring new places and meeting new friends.
Prompted by Pete, I recently watched on the YouTubes a Fortnine video from the “Why We Ride” series where the host Ryan shared the essence of the following Pirsig quote:
“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
Whether on a bicycle or a moto, “You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” In the words of Jamie Robinson, “Just go ride and have a buurgurr…”
If you enjoyed this post, feel free to comment. Please, just be nice when you comment about my use of the Oxford comma. Pete is sensitive to grammar shaming…