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The many faces of Death Valley

Sunday, November 12, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Michelle Wolter

Single-day temperature swings up to 60 degrees, off the beaten track campgrounds, and a plan - or at least six versions of a plan, because you know, a guy needs options! Welcome to adventure motorcycling like you have never dreamed. Not for the weak of heart, but full of sights that will burn into your memory and experiences that you can only get when you ride the line of near disaster. Why do it? Why not! At least that is the answer of two Minnesota men who have been riding BMW GS motorcycles across America for almost a decade.

Their unconventional idea and rare partnership come to be by complete accident, like most great things in life. The pair is an odd couple, no doubt. They could just as easily be called Felix and Oscar as their given names - Chris (known by his friends as Shep) and John. They are a unique combination of fly by the seat of your pants (John) and continual checklist planning (Shep). What they share is a long history of passion for riding (from dirt bikes to Harleys and inevitably to BMWs), the curiosity of tinkering, escaping the cold winters in Minnesota, and the love of freedom.

Setting out on this adventure with these two road warriors was a bit daunting. Coming from someone whose vacation hotel roster includes the Four Seasons (yes, my nickname is Zsa Zsa - as in Zsa Zsa Gabor), I had my doubts about being able to enjoy and withstand the number of miles and lack of facilities at our destinations. I confess to having the most amazing time and, while the facilities were in fact rustic, I never felt stressed or uncomfortable.

You can do this, regardless of gender, age, or number of miles in the saddle – and you will have a blast.

Day One: Las Vegas to Tecopa via Old Spanish Trail

The Old Spanish Trail is a must for riders looking to experience this area. Every twist and turn displays another mountain proudly testifying its age with centuries of striations of various colors. The hills and mountains display every color, some claiming a single color, others showing a Neapolitan swirl including salmon pink, rusty red, sand, olive green, earthy lavender, burnt orange, and grey. Hugging the road are gnarly plants, cactus, and bramble, all of which look angry at the world. The basin of Death Valley is barren, but the entire area has an unequalled, breathtaking beauty.

We interrupt the visual overload for a pit stop that is as random and off the beaten path as my drivers are. I will admit to being more than skeptical when John told me about the “date shake” we would be eating at a place called China Ranch. I proudly admit to being wrong – they are beyond delicious, as is the crazy winding road you drive to reach it at the bottom of the valley. China Ranch emerges from the badlands valley as an oasis you would expect to find in the Sahara. It is a completely odd ball place with a strange little antique shop and a history that walks straight out of the annuals of the Wild West. It is a must-stop location on your adventure through Death Valley.

We make camp in Furnace Creek, a wonderful campground with full facilities – and my last chance at them. We dine on jerky, Cheetos, Diet Coke, and Coors Lite, watching the fire and listening to the coyotes in the hills. Of course, the campfire would not be complete without a discussion on process improvements for the next ride. John is testing a Bivey sleeping arrangement which he calls "stealth sleeping." The guys like it as a fast pop up option for setting up or breaking camp fast. Zsa Zsa gives it a low score as it is terrifying to be out in the open under only a mosquito net. Shep is testing a new high-powered flashlight (2,500 lumens). It is awesome as long as it isn't pointed at you! Zsa Zsa suggests baby powder sprayed into socks and shoes to keep feet cool. Shep is a believer!

Day Two: Death Valley to Kernville

It is strange how the sections of desert which are so close to each other can be so radically different. Today the floor of the desert is covered in brilliant yellow flowers dotted with vibrant orange and purple. Once leaving the basin of Death Valley the desert changes in appearance to be speckled like chicken pox on a child’s face. Small tufts of prickly bushes that seem to be awaiting a strong stiff wind to release them and transform them at last to be free as tumbleweeds.

Our route today is, shall we say, unpredictable and seems to change at every fork in the road. John knows the route - no specific highways or turn-by-turn directions - he just feels his way. The route he selected today has us bobbing up and down on a windy, dippy road. The dips literally make me lose my stomach – it is the best roller coaster ride of my life!

Our destination is Kernville, which is home to amazing views along mountaintop side roads. Our route takes us through the town of Trona, a sadly interesting spot along the way. I could not help thinking that this is the place all things come to die - old dishwashers, businesses, people, you name it. It appears those things and more come to a final, rusty resting place on this piece of scorched earth. The only remaining life seems to exist in the shadow of the sole proprietor - a salt manufacturing business. Passing through Trona is a true rite of passage to the beauty of this region, and it leaves you a parting gift as you leave. You have to be quick with your rear view mirror or you will miss it. There is a modern-day hieroglyphic of a salmon painted onto the red rock formation just outside the city.

We arrive and make camp along the Kern River in a rustic campground which discretely announces the presence of bears in the area with a sign I thankfully did not see until the next morning. We decide to play a bit more and take in some mountaintop views along the road to Johnsondale. While the road is seasonally closed at the top of the pass, it is a beautiful and winding road cutting through the mountains and sequoias with sharp switchbacks and hairpin turns. It is as scenic as it is exhilarating.

We opt for dining out and head to McNalley's for dinner on the Kern River. McNalley’s won’t disappoint you with their steaks and the Moscow Mule was dead on. We choose a window seat and are surprised with an unexpected entertainer in the form of an old cowboy who never seemed to lose interest in playing horseshoes by himself. He is fully raptured in his game and adorned with a black top hat, Stetson jeans and white t-shirt.

Back at camp the temperature plunges and our fire roars. It seems impossible that there would be even more stars in the sky, but glimmering lights shine above us the sounds of the Kern River are our lullaby. It is by far one of the most peaceful and beautiful campsites I have ever been to – less the bears.

Day Three: Kernville to Mojave Desert

Before leaving the mountaintop village of Kernville, we stop for breakfast at The Airport Café, a small place nestled at the Kernville air strip. Shawn took great care of us as she always does when the guys pass through. They have only six tables and everyone is greeted by name when they come in. An excellent old-fashioned greasy spoon of eggs any way you like 'em with all the trappings.

Leaving Kernville, we take the river road around Lake Isabella to Bodfish, which is a curvy thrill ride up and down the hills and mountains. There are turns so tight you could scrape the side of the mountain with your side mirror. After Bodfish we take Highway 40 and push through 100 miles to the Kelso Dunes region of Mojave. John and Shep's guiding principle for their trips is to maximize visual overload and minimize the interactions with people. This is the main reason they travel the southwest and the Pacific coast from September to November and February to May. The off season gives them access to the amazing routes with twisty turns without having to wait in line behind an RV. Getting from one playground of roads to another and then back to the airport sometimes requires taking freeways and high-traffic routes. As John states, "You have to do the math" on your route, which means sometimes you have to pound out some miles to make the math work.

At the Dunes in Mojave the guys opt for an isolated gravel road which is ideal for dispersed camping. I soon come to find this is their ultimate form of rustic camping. Dispersed camping is a fancy way of saying "pull over on the side of the road and pitch your tent." No money, no questions. The only rule of the road is there needs to be an existing fire ring in place in order to camp with a fire. John is a big believer in dispersed camping, a common practice across the national forest areas. Without a soul in sight, absolute silence engulfs us. I have never experienced silence like this; we can literally hear each other breathe. Impossibly, there are even more stars than the night before. Simply amazing. I can’t imagine experiencing the desert any other way.

Follow them on their next adventure - leaving the lights of Las Vegas for the isolated beauty of Monument Valley, Mexican Hat, and more as the duo makes for Colorado and their next storage locker! You can read more about their adventures at (look for Girlincamp posts).

  • Death Valley Trip Stats:
  • Total of 776.5 miles in 3.5 days
  • Number of showers - ZERO
  • Number of campsites with running water – ONE
  • Number of times we heard John say, "The vast nothingness is awesome!" - about 30 times
  • Number of laughs: Countless

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