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Life and Death Valley: The Tipping Point


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Seems almost natural to kick off this riding season with a trip to Death Valley. It’s been at the top of the list for a number of years now, either overland or adventure riding, especially with my fascination with the phenomenon of the Racetrack, and with health issues compounding, it was time to check it off.


This trip the bike would be doing so much better than I with a new cylinder head and many, many other necessary bits, pieces and tuning to get it back to new factory spec, thanks to the service staff and techs at Eurosports Utah. My own organic cylinder head is now conspiring against me with the discovery of an ascending aortic aneurysm whose girth isn’t quite at the alarming stage, but it’s disconcerting nonetheless. This wasn’t in the chemo brochure, but I’m still on the sunny side of the soil, still able to throw my leg over the seat and keep the Tiger upright when I come to a stop. For the most part.

I had a new riding companion join me on this journey as well, Shawn Devevan, former colleague and current friend from my university days. Shawn showed a lot of interest in my documented journeys and decided to venture a bit further into the ADV realm with the purchase of a 2015 Triumph Tiger Explorer 1200 XC and plans to join me on the Prudhoe Bay, Alaska trip coming up.


Shawn and I made it to Death Valley without incident, despite a side street tour of North Las Vegas. We took the Beatty Junction way into the northeast entrance to Furnace Creek where shortly after we found a campsite in the Sunset campground, a first-come, first-served area. Furnace Creek CG and Texas Springs were full, and Sunset was quickly filling up that Saturday afternoon. Not much to speak of other than plumbed restrooms and potable water stations. Campsite had no fire rings or tables, but I can’t imagine wanting either when the temps are above the century mark. Temperatures considered, we were there at Death Valley’s peak season.


It was as if I could feel the air change as we descended the Amargosa Mountains into The Valley. I know that’s not plausible, but it is in my head, this temporal tipping point. I can’t put a finger on what that change was, temperature, aridness, pressure, all three I’m sure, because in minutes we went from sixty-four degrees to seventy-four degrees. Aside from Furnace Creek’s oasis, there’s not much evidence of anything living in The Valley, save for the RVs, tents, overlanders and the Hotel California in the distance. And again, I was rocked a bit by The Valley’s proof of things to come and how little it made me feel.


I’ve written before about what I’m now calling Puny Human Complex, something at which national parks, oceans, and motorcycles are especially adept. Not only does Death Valley make me feel small, I feel insignificant here, and it doesn’t matter, another tipping point.

At one juncture in our wanderings we made our way up to Artists Palette, a one-way meander through Death Valley’s remarkably colorful patina. The first stop was a vista overlooking the range’s trajectory down to the salty valley. I’ve seen so many views like this that snapping a frame of them is only symbolic. It doesn’t matter, the frame will never catch what the optic nerve is transmitting. Then to seemingly descend the level of insignificance, much like going lower than sea level, we motored to Badwater Basin and witnessed the come-back of a dead lake. Tipped. I can only hope the Great Salt Lake is as lucky.


I got up early in the mornings and stood true to my resolve of getting a walk in every day. The first day delivered me to a spot evidenced of the atmospheric river’s visit August previous where every rock appeared to have turned turn over as the flooding raced to the basin. I could hear it there in my head, much like the pebbles sound on every wave’s egress at Pescadero.


The Valley became a bit more indelible to me. We covered a lot of ground from our center in Furnace Creek and as the miles went on I kept telling myself that what I was seeing and smelling wasn’t much different than a combination of Southern Utah’s Desert with the shores of the Great Salt Lake, which evoked the thought of why here, I mean besides being 262 feet below sea level.


What’s so special about this place? I realized it’s not that this place wasn’t special, it was folding my own habituation back into what I think is my reality that tried to numb me to it.


The true tipping point came on our attempt on day-three to make it to the Racetrack. It’s a thirty-mile out and back over the same ground that got the same pounding further south. If one ever needed to feel less significant, riding over this stuff can deliver.


Logging any miles on just about any dirt road will yield some civilized stretches, if even they exist only to promote false hope. The road to the Racetrack wasn’t any different except for the length and quantity of these stretches. If I remember correctly, it was one and it was about fifty yards.




I rode the Tiger’s pegs for the most part, standing up over my windscreen with an unimpeded view, the Tiger’s hydraulics doing their best to keep the terrain’s washboard from my bones, my fillings in particular. My own experience with similar conditions was to use speed to my advantage, enough momentum to make it through sand, shale and babyheads, compress the washboards, and let the almost seven hundred pounds (rider’s displacement included) float beneath me. This worked to my advantage on this road, too, until I assumed I could read its deceptive terrain. What would look like hard pack was more like quick sand, forcing my ass as far back on my seat as possible to pull as much weight as possible off the handlebars.



Then Shawn went down. Just past the Playa of the moving rocks, almost to the fork in the road that takes us to the Racetrack, he lost control from the sand’s relentless battering of his front wheel. His Tiger suffered more damage than he, but I’m certain he felt more pain. Then I went down.

After we got Shawn and his Tiger righted, we returned to the Playa to walk things off and take a picture of a rock, where he discovered his GoPro was missing. I went back up the road to look for it and quickly relearned a lesson in fixation and went into a tall berm. The bike hit and tipped just beyond it weight’s force pulling it down through its center, it’s literal tipping point, but not all the way over, and yet, I could not right the bike. I couldn’t budge it. Shawn ran over to help and after I got back on I found his GoPro just another half-mile down the road.

We walked out onto the Playa found a rock with a track and took its picture.


And then I felt adequately immersed enough in this park to apply the sticker.


It was on our way back, just past Tea Kettle Junction when I went down, sand underfoot and tire, and hard pack under hip and shoulder. My Explorer straddled two thirds of the narrow grade, so I tried to right it. It was fully tipped, resting on its right-side pannier and engine guard. I got into the defensive tackle position, put my shoulder into the tank and pushed forward while lifting the handlebar with my right hand and the oh-shit handle at the back with my left. I raised it up, reaching that apex where you know if you clear it, that tipping point, you’ll succeed the rest of the way. But I didn’t. I tried again and there was nothing, not even a token budge from the old Tiger.

I laid it down three more times, at a stand-still. I put my foot down to steady the bike and it was as if the weight’s force was dialed up to my hip, the center too high to maintain, and my leg gave out and I dropped the Tiger Explorer, this time without the ability to right it.

I said at the receipt of my cancer diagnosis that I’d probably stop riding when I could no longer hold up the Tiger, even unloaded. I lied. Instead I am prepared to do that thing that incubates dread in the most dedicated gym rat; leg day.


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