July 18, 1998, evening edition

The trip out of the east end of Yosemite is quite stunning. I heartily recommend coming in from the west then heading out east. At Tioga Pass, 9,990 feet above sea level, the parking lot is slushy and icy from the runoff of foot deep snow above it. Along Hwy 395 heading south I can see the peaks that form the outer shell in which Yosemite resides in, and while I am slowly broiling at 2,000 ft and 90F, there are fingers of white still gripping the sides of these peaks some 8,000 feet above me. The contrast is rather remarkable.

Speaking of contrasts, I would like to take a moment to discuss the contrast between motorcycles and cars under tight curves and steep inclines. When one is on a motorcycle, the response time is radically shorter than when in a car, out of the simple fact that bikes weigh hundreds, even thousands, of pounds less. Therefore, we accelerate quicker, slow quicker, and turn quicker. Do not think that when you are in a car that you can simply go faster and we will no longer be on your tail. It is an inconvenience to both you and us for you to continue to ignore pulloffs because you think you can outrun us. Your insistence on not slowing briefly diminishes the experience for both of us, as you are now concentrating on the road and we are trying to watch both you and the view. It is not a matter of our "hot-dogging" that leads to us driving two to three times the speed you can safely drive at, it is a matter that our comfort zone is much faster and to go slower leads to gyroscopic instability as the low engine rpms and low wheel rpms fight our efforts to lean smoothly into each turn as we teeter between being able to lean and having to turn the wheel (which are not the same). Please, in all politeness and respect, the next time you are in the mountains and a motorcyclist comes up behind you, pull over and let them pass. Thank you.

I stop for the night in a town called Bishop, and I am too tired to consider camping. Tomorrow is Death Valley, and I need to be rested.

July 19, 1998

I wake late, and am slow to get going. I reach the outer edges of Death Valley around 10 am, and the temperature is already starting to climb. There is a significant climb to get into the Valley, and I pass the 6,000ft elevation marker on the way in, and it is relatively cool. It begins to dawn on me why the temperarature is as it is in the Valley. The mountains rimming the Valley are a wall which the heated air on the desert below rises along, but the air at the peaks is cool, forming a ceiling which prevents the air and heat from escaping. This creates a closed box, with the Sun pouring more and more thermal energy into it.

I cross a peak, and look down into a narrow yellow brown strip below. Death Valley? Seems rather narrow. I descend into the small valley, and can feel the heat pushing itself into my body. In spite of the lack of humidity, the air is not cooling me but instead heating me. The elevation marker reads 2,000ft, and I know this is not the real Death Valley. I climb the mountains at the other side, and patiently wait for me descent into the true inferno. It comes soon enough. I descend again, lower, and lower, with the heat building. I reach the entrance, Stovetop Pipes (I've already sent my map home, so forgive me if I've got the name wrong). It is literally scorching hot, and it is still above sea level. I stop for gas and oil, and the thermometer reads 118F, at only 11am. I check the oil level, and inspect my bike. I decide to ride with my tank top and gloveless to maximize my skin for cooling. I ride to the Ranger station and after paying my entrance fee, discuss my course of action with the Ranger. She convinces me to ride through the center of the Valley instead of touching only a small part of it on my way to Beatty NV and Vegas, Baby. More heat, but quite a bit quicker.

The heat is unreal. I feel like I am injecting hot air directly under my skin. The black of my handlebar grips and gas tank are hot to touch, so I have to ride with my legs splayed and alternating my fingers like a gecko lizard. The faster I go the hotter I am, so I cruise along at 45 or so. There are names for the different areas of the Valley, names like Devil's Cornfield and Hell's Gates. They are appropriate. I don't see the Devil in his cornfield; likely he is off looking for shade. The heat is building and I am wondering about my sanity.

I've been through the desert on a horse with no name

It felt good to get out of the rain

In the desert, you can't remember your name

because there ain't no one for to give you no pain

Actually, I think I've mangled that last line, so my apologies to America (the band). You can't remember your name because the Sun purges it and most other thoughts from your brain. And I don't name my horse, because I don't name my body parts, unlike some men. They are simply my arms, my legs, and my bike.

I feel my hands blistering from the air blowing over them. The dirt that flies up from the road and normally only stings now burns and lingers. Cross winds are fresh injections of pain, sapping my strength. Enough, I have to stop and hope that putting on my jacket will reduce the blasts of hot air that threaten to bake me. I look down and am completely devastated to see my right leg covered with black motor oil, from boot to my shorts. I look at my left leg and it is spattered with oil. Has the heat forced my oil boiling out through the crankcase breather? No, it is worse than that. When I added a quart of oil some ten miles back I failed to put the oil cap back on, and the oil has been spewing out of the open crancase. Oh, the stupidity. Where could the cap have fallen off? I remember placing it on the engine, so it could have fallen off anywhere. Oh, no, oh no. I envision staying at a motel in Death Valley, waiting for UPS to deliver a cap so I can remove my poor bike from the inferno it is suffering through at the side of the road. What did the clerk say about rooms? $80 a night? And it's Sunday, so it'd be tomorrow before I could even call and find the part and another day to get it. Oh, no. Oh man.

All I can do is take my gear off and wait for a car to come by going back to the entrance. I hope to look for the cap and maybe if I find it I'll get some oil and, well, let's not get our hopes up. I wait a couple minutes and a red car comes over the horizon. I walk over to the center of the road and begin waving my arm. The car slows, and I see a Mercedes Benz emblem on the hood, but I fail to recognize the model. It is a very smal, compact car, but has four doors and a high roof. Strange. They stop, and I explain to the German speaking driver my problem. He discusses the situation in German with his partner who has been examining the readout of a laptop computer, and they are smiling. Sure, I can ride with them. I am filthy, and they give me a rag to wipe off. I have to remove my boots, which are placed in the back. Everywhere there are wires, and I believe they are fiberoptic. Strange. I ask the two Germans what they do, and I laugh when they reply "we test cars", because suddenly it is all clear. I am riding in a preproduction car that Mercedes wishes to test under the extreme conditions of Death Valley. What a treat. The car is not even for the USA but for Japan and South America and I get a ride back to town in it. We discuss the readouts, and the performance of the car (quite good). I am impressed with the car, and while I may be in dire straits, I am not without amusement.

And I soon recover from the dire straits as well. I retrace my ride from the gas station to the Ranger Station and find the oil cap lying in the middle of the road. I go on to the station and get a Ranger to give me a quart of oil (I left my wallet with my gear and don't have any cash) and a ride back to my bike. My bike is covered with oil, and I spend some time cleaning it off while talking to the Ranger. Turns out every summer the major car manufacturers bring experimental cars and there is a cat and mouse game as they try to disguise them from the magazine photographers who come in to stay for weeks on end trying to get an exclusive picture. Occasionally the cars are too experimental, and the previous week one burned to the ground. The fact that the car I rode is was undisguised indicates it's pretty close to being released. Amazing.

I get my bike running and press on to Furnace Creek. Wearing my jacket keeps me cooler, but it is still uncomfortable. I soon find out why, as it is 125F in Furnace Creek at the official weather station. I eat lunch outside the visitor's center, my usual two peanut butter sandwiches. My second sandwhich is stale and dried out before I can finish eating my first one. I talk for a while with a self-proclaimed historian who wanted to feel the heat. He is quite knowledgeable, and I find myself talking about Strom Thurmond, his much younger ex-wife, and their daughter. Had I not been on the trip I have been on, I would have found it strange discussing a drunk female who was struck and killed by a drunk driver while she was wandering down the middle of the road in an area of Columbia where everyone is drunk or fixing drinks.

I travel another 30 miles in the Valley, and it is now the heat of the day, 3 pm. By now I am truly suffering, as my water is hot, and I can not bring my temperature down. It is with great relief that I begin the climb out of the Valley. I pass on a quick excursion to Dante's View, the lowest part in the USA at 297 feet below sea level, content with my 190 feet below of Furnace Creek. So long, desert. Hello, desert.

The trip to Vegas, Baby, is uneventful. Motels are cheap, and I find a room across the interstate from the MGM Grand, Excelsior and Luxor Hotels for only $25. I shower and wait for the sun to set before going out to the Strip for the light show. The traffic is heavy, but I enjoy the sights. I recommend parking and getting out and walking, but I want to go from end to end, and this is over five miles total. Funny, there are a lot of lights, but not to the extent I had envisioned. It is interesting, and there is a hop to the city. Unlike New Orleans, Vegas, Baby is relatively new and her wrinkles and sags do not yet show. I wander off the Strip, ignoring the lightning that appears off in the distance. This turns out to be a mistake, as I am well off the Strip when the skies open up and in a few short minutes the roads go from paved to lined with swift moving streams of water. The rain is torrential, in mere seconds I am completely soaked and it is difficult to see. I do not know how to get to my motel from the side roads, and they are rapidly becoming unpassable, so I make it back to the Strip. It is not much better. What is normally four lanes in either direction is reduced to two lanes, with the right most two lanes under an indeterminate depth of water. At intersections everything is washed out, under water that flows fiercely across the path. Cars brave it slowly, and I slower than the cars. I can feel debris sweeping past my sandaled feet, and the water rises in places to my footpegs, crushing my toes between the tide and the pegs.

Lightning strikes everything without discrimination, casinos, lightposts, trees. The closest one is directly across the street from me, maybe a hundred feet away. Often before the thunder finishes from one strike lightning has struck again. I continue to wind my way through the flooding streets, and at an intersection a public transportation bus pulls up next to me. The entire ensemble rises and gives me the "thumbs up" sign and waves. I wave back, and at the next intersection I pull up and yell to the driver "I should have taken the bus!"

Finally I make it to my motel street, but perhaps the worst is still to come. The road is next to a construction site, and there has been a large amount of runoff onto the road. I move forward slowly, and ahead two guys are pushing a car back away from the small river covering the road. They warn me off, saying I won't make it. OK, but not making it means not getting to my room and getting out of the freezing cold wet clothes I am in. I study the currents, trying to gauge the depth. I am actively doing what is absolutely not a good idea, crossing a road covered with water that is deeper than I can tell. The runoff from the construction site creates rises and ruts in the passage, and I dare not put my feet down, for I know I will be ripped off my bike if I do. I have to lift my foot to avoid breaking some toes on a fast moving board ripping by. I make the first stretch and then must pause to study the next. I have to cross at a severe angle to avoid the current, so that I am almost directly into the current but going to the side instead of further down the road. I make this, and can see the motel ahead. This is the biggest threat. The driveway is steep, and the water is certainly two or three feet deep here. I can not angle either, as I must cross perpendicular to the current. I grimace, and bring up the rpms. The front wheel's axle disappears under the water and the spray bouncing off the engine is making it hard to see. The front wheel climbs up, but the engine and back wheel are now fully in the current. The back wheel slides out and I gun it up the driveway, jamming my left foot down in a desperate measure to stay upright. I find traction and shoot forward, nearly running into a guy who had run out into the rain to try to help pull me through. Over an hour after it started, and four miles from where it began, my flood running is over.

Later, I go out and look at the motel road. It is under over two feet of water, with the edges washing over the sidewalks and the middle a swirling, twisting mass of water. If I had waited, I would never had made it. However, what I did was risky and could have cost me my life. It is never a good idea to do this on a bike, and downright dangerous in a car, due to the larger cross section the floor offers to the current. Six inches of water can pick up a car and toss it around effortlessly. Only because my wheels are spoked and do not present much cross section to the water, and because I have a high ground clearance, could I do this successfully. Otherwise the water would have swept me away too.

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