Into Death Valley
From Las Vegas, pretty much any direction is into the desert. I picked north to start with, heading out to the Area 51 Alien Centre. This is, basically, a gas station with a clothing aisle, selling alien-themed T-shirts. The place was gearing up for the planned "invade Area 51" event scheduled for September 20. I had a look around the area briefly, but all I saw was desert... I couldn't even find any off-putting fences or stony-faced security men to hint at the presence of carefully guarded secrets, let alone alien life. But life in the desert is pretty alien anyway – and that was good enough for me.
I carried on south to Death Valley Junction. At that point I could have swung west on Highway 190, but I kept going on the 127 - the near-endless straights gradually giving way to sweeping corners. After a few miles, I turned right on a road that began a gentle climb into a dusty sierra. It reached a rocky summit that a roadside sign told me was Jubilee Pass, 1293ft above sea level. That told me things were about to get seriously interesting... as just ahead lay Death Valley and the Badwater Basin: the lowest point of the North American continent, at 279ft below sea level.
The initial descent is epic, as the road cuts between rocky banks in a series of jinking curves and gradually lengthening straights. I can see the bottom of the valley, far below, bright white in the harsh midday light. As the road hits rock bottom and swings to the north, it gives up on corners and runs straight, rising and falling like the sea until it meets the foot of the cliffs as the valley narrows. Then it hugs the tall, rocky side of the valley, curving along beside the salt flats in a series of brilliantly enjoyable curves.
My entire wardrobe has been constructed about this ride: I knew it would be hot when I got here. That's why I'm wearing Draggin Jeans rather than leather trousers or sensible textiles. It's why I packed the RevIt mesh jacket (mine's the now superseded Airforce) and, most especially, why I have my ace in the hole: the BMW Cooldown Vest. This is simply brilliant: you pour water into the outer panels (it's a nappy-like material so you don't get wet) and as you ride, the water evaporates and keeps you cool. It really works, but it's so hot here that the water evaporates quickly. In the course of this one day, I get through a whole litre of water keeping it topped up...
Death Valley is, quite frankly, one of the strangest but most compelling places I've been on the entire trip. Objectively, it should just be the kind of hot, dull place you'd be glad to escape, but again it's the crazy landscape that lifts it: sand or salt flats on one side, cliffs that look to be made of marbled Belgian chocolate on the other. I take the brilliantly twisty single-track road to the rock formation known as "The Artist's Palette" - though to me it looks more like a confectioner's scrap heap, a rocky slope made of rocks in every shade of white and brown, plus some greens and pinks. I climb to sea level and rejoin Highway 190, initially turning right (back towards Area 51).
I want to visit Zabriskie Point (actually the location of the U2 Joshua Tree album cover). Even the short ride there is beautiful, in the alien/craggy/rocky way of the desert. The car park is quite busy and I join the steady trickle of people stumping up the winding path to the view point (everyone else is in shorts, looking at me in my bike gear as if I'm insane... I might be). Even the path has majestic views over a landscape of white rock that lies like rumpled linen, but the vista from the top is simply breathtaking.
From there I hurry on, filling up at another expensive petrol station, then stopping for a very late lunch in Stovepipe Wells. The general store sells t-shirts with the slogan "Death Valley - hottest place on earth" and when I go out and move the bike into an empty space on the shady side of the car park, the levers are so hot it feels like they're burning my bare hands. The dash says it's 48°C. I carry on, passing the giant sand dunes (the helpful roadside sign says: Sand Dunes) without stopping as they're busier than Brighton beach on a bank holiday. I leave Death Valley for the equally desert-busting but even more deserted (and much worse-surfaced) road through Trona to my overnight stop Ridgecrest.
My route now is back to the coast and, hopefully, to cooler weather. I head up to take 9200ft Sherman Pass - the only paved route through the mountains in this area… though in places the surface leaves a lot to be desired (think: neglected Pyrenean back-road, with lots of bumps, tar seams and gravel). I stop at the top, having a chat with dirt-bikers Dan and Bob, before dropping down to the heat of the central valley again. It doesn't feel much cooler than the desert had. I'm piling on the miles because, even though Sherman Pass cut through the Sequoia National Forest, I'm keen to get up to the Sequoia National Park - which is actually quite a long way away.
I press on past vast orange groves, endless lines of grapevines, gigantic fields of low green plants I can't identify... After miles of dead-straight roads I pick up Highway 198 through Lemon Cove, which is a beautifully twisty road like some of the bigger routes that traverse the Picos de Europa in Northern Spain. This leads straight into the National Park (thank you, Annual Pass - saved another $30) and it's only when I get the map that I realise my error. This park is vast... If I'd arrived at 9am, I'd be hard-pushed to do it justice; getting here at 2pm means I'm going to gallop through and miss loads.
What I do see, though, blows me away. The road through the park is sublime: constant jinking left-rights giving way to beautifully surfaced runs of hairpins as the road climbs. Most of the time it's shaded by trees, but when views appear they are magnificent. But then, so are the trees... The higher I climb, the bigger they get, crowding the road so I feel like Gulliver in Brobdingnag. These truly are giant redwoods... and I'm going to make sure I see the king of the giants.
The General Sherman tree is the biggest tree in the world - not the tallest, widest or oldest... but the sustained girth of the trunk means it's the largest living thing on the planet. It's one of the major attractions, so I find a slot for the SX in the car park and walk down the steep path, passing dozens of other massive redwoods and plenty of other tourists. I get to the bottom, by the tree and, yes, it is impressive... but somehow I find more peace on the path than rubbing shoulders with the throng around the tree. These woods truly are magical - but I suspect they're best appreciated on a walking tour, rather than on a motorcycle one...
From Sequoia, it's time to head south. Time to get back to Los Angeles and get ready for the next stage of the trip.