Into the Valley of Death

Near Furnace Creek, Death Valley

Plenty of road, but plenty of time?

We had all been through a lot to get here.  Now, as I turned out the light and settled in for what I hoped would be a better than usual restless-night-before-the-big-event sleep the only question was: would we be able to get back here again tomorrow?

The Depths of Winter
When the four of us–Dana, Bob, Tim, and myself–decided to train for the spring Death Valley ultra century (150 miles) we knew it would be tough training through the winter.  I don’t think any of us realized how tough it would be.  After all, winters are usually pretty mild here (well, mild relative to North Dakota, probably not so much if you live anywhere very far south of the Virginia border).  We are, after all, only now on the verge of breaking the region’s longest recorded period without a snowfall of more than two inches: 769 days.  So we were all pretty confident we would be able to ride outside throughout most of the winter.

And we did.  We laid out a plan and got almost all our long rides in.  There was one Brevet that was postponed due to the usual “incredibly dangerous storm that never showed up” phenomenon common in the DC region (not a criticism of the ride organizers; it was a good safety call given the self-supported nature of randonneuring) but we managed to follow our plan up to a maximum distance of 120.

But these were tough rides.  I thought that nothing could be as miserable as doing the long Ironman training rides in the middle of a thick and sweaty DC area summer.  I also generally ride a lot better in the cold.  Riding really long in the cold, however, is a different matter.  You dress as well as you can, but while you may put in some hard miles at a crisp pace and delude yourself into thinking that you have warmed up, you never really do.  Next day, your muscles will tell you how much you never warmed up.  The temperature seems manageable, but then the wind rises just a tad and suddenly the temperature drops ten degrees.  There were the hard hills out at Marshall, the Nokesville 120 that started out in temperatures of 18 degrees.  It would have been nice to get one longer ride in, but the 12o in those temperatures that was about our limit.

In addition, my bike woes continued.  After developing a minor crack in my bottom bracket weeks ago, attempts to get Cervelo to cough up a warranty frame proved largely fruitless.  It did generate a lot of excuses about inventory re-organization and the like.  I’d had additional concerns; they are no longer making the RS (I have loved the frame design of this bike but I’m guessing a major manufacturing/design defect didn’t help its cause), but the bike shop assured me that Cervelo kept enough frames back for warranty purposes.  So, naturally, when the replacement frame finally turned up at my LBS it was a different bike: an R3.  Not exactly a crap frame by any means!  And the geometry is roughly similar.  However, when you are facing up to 150 miles roughly similar could made for a pretty rough day, especially when the LBS can only get the bike to you two days before you leave.  And the RS had stood up to all the long rides, with no further noticeable degrading of the bottom bracket.

So Ginger the RS was on her way to Death Valley.  Hopefully she had one last long ride in her.

The Depths of Humanity
We planned pretty well for the ride.  One of our team-mates, Roy, had attempted the 200 mile version of the ride two years ago, when howling winds had decimated the field and caused most of the survivors to shorten their ride distances dramatically.  He gave us a lot of good advice about the ride route, conditions, the nearest place to pick up bike supplies when we left the airport, and so on.  We managed to get direct flights, bought, begged or borrowed bike cases, got all the bikes stripped down and packed away (with Roy’s help) at a packing party.  We felt ready to go.

The teeny downside of this whole escapade was that we had to go through Las Vegas.

I’ll admit it, I don’t get the whole idea of Vegas.  Many years back, during our first trip to Death Valley, Mary and I, in need of a home base, made an ill-advised stop at what was then imaginatively called “Stateline” Nevada and is now known as Primm,  It was then (and still is, I imagine) two large casinos, one on either side of Highway 15, poised to vaccuum dollars from tourists literally the moment they stepped over the border.  The casino experience was among the most appalling spectacles of humanity either of us have ever witnessed.  When we realized that Vegas was that magnified a thousandfold we knew that it was a place to be avoided at all costs.

Sure, lots of people I know have gone to Vegas and “enjoyed” it.  I strongly suspect, however, that people “enjoy” Vegas because it is one of those things that people think they are supposed to enjoy.  So when they don’t enjoy it, and realize that, but realize also that they can’t admit to not enjoying it or that will make them look like a freak, they hold more determinedly to the delusion that they are having a great time.  It is a lot like joining a fraternity or sorority in that way.  I’ve also never heard a “I had so much fun in Vegas” story that didn’t involve getting drunk off your ass.  Which strengthens the comparison with fraternities and sororities even more.

One thing I will give Vegas, however: it is honest.  Its only goal is to part you from your money.  It starts as soon as you get off the plane.  Before you can even locate a restroom you are tripping over slot machines.  Slot machines, raucous with bells and game show slogans (“Wheel!  Of!  Fortune!”) are also the last thing you see before you fly out.  But there is no pretense.  Vegas doesn’t pretend to be environmentally conscious while parting you from your money.  It doesn’t pretend to be socially responsible while parting you from your money.  It just takes demands your money.  So in that sense it is much better than being in a frat or a sorority.  No need to keep up the constant “Dude!” or “Your hair is so cute!” stuff.

But wait, I hear you say.  Vegas isn’t just all gambling.  There are shows!  Yes, looking at the billboards as we passed through the city, I did notice that.  Celine Dion. Juice Newton.  Really?  I wouldn’t have thrown my panties at either of them when they were younger let alone now.

I guess Vegas could be a great people-watching spectacle.  But if I want to watch large groups of chemically-dependent, grossly unhealthy people throwing away scads of money, I’ll watch C-SPAN.

So the chief happiness to be found in Las Vegas is that you can leave it (although hopefully not in a Nicholas Cage/Elizabeth Shue kind of way).

Unfortunately, even that plan was thwarted by the fact that Dana and Tim’s bikes never made it.

We’d chosen to fly Southwest for a number of reasons: they were by far the cheapest option, they fly direct to Vegas and because their charge for oversize bags (which almost inevitably includes most bikes) is the lowest of the domestic airlines (don’t get me started about what a fucking racket this is, when golf clubs and skis count as regular baggage).  In fact, for those of us who are handsome and charming (i.e. me) there was no charge at all for the bike bag; in this case my natural charm was aided materially by the friendly employees having misread the measurement requirements for bike bags.  Southwest, in common with other airlines recently adjusted its measurements downward to account for bike bags that were being designed smaller (a pretty clear indication that their concern is not luggage space but rather making money).  They also upped their fees (from $50 to $75, in comparison with $150 each way on most other airlines).

We are all relative noobs at flying with our bikes so we learned a valuable lesson: make sure that you see airline employees carry your bag into the mysterious nether regions of the airport.  For both Bob and I, our friendly airline employees grabbed our bag and carried it down behind the counter to the oversize baggage drop-off and passed it through.  Tim and Dana were asked to carry their bags down there themselves and leave them.  As we walked away, we looked back and saw the bags still sitting there.  In retrospect we should have known.  But it never occurred to us that in this day and age of utterly paranoid “Oh my god your shoes will kill us all!” security, that a pair of large bags could remain sitting unattended in the middle of an airport for enough time to miss their flight.  That might be something for BWI to consider also.

We also learned one of the things that helps Southwest provide people with those cheap tickets: they don’t actually have any kind of baggage tracking system.  Things are scanned at origin, and then at the destination.  If they arrive at the destination.  If they don’t, the airline has no way of telling you where they are.  So if your bags are destined for Phoenix and they end up in Boise, you are completely dependent upon some employee noticing a couple of spare bags hanging around and scanning them.

Leaving the Horror Behind
We decided to split up.  The next flight from BWI didn’t get in until 8:30 in the evening, so Tim and Dana opted to wait, while Bob and I picked up supplies and headed out to Death Valley.  We collected the rental van, drove to a nearby REI to stock up on CO2 and food, and then as the sun set, hit the road.  Even the soft light couldn’t hide the ugliness of Las Vegas.  If you look away from the mesmerizing neon of the strip, from even the slight rise of a freeway overpass, you see endless suburbs of identical box houses stretching as far as the eye can see.  In many cases the suburban architects (and I use that word loosely) had eschewed even the minimally imaginative option of cul-de-sacs and loops and settled for simply jamming as many houses together in as small a space as possible.

We wended our way across the darkening desert to the town of Pahrump, roughly halfway between Vegas and Death Valley.  We were hungry by this point, but given that Pahrump is best known for  legal prostitution (and from what we could see, that would be the only thing the place has to recommend it) we thought it might be prudent to avoid anything advertising “All you can eat.”  So we opted for a Carl’s Jnr., a decision for which Bob has still not forgiven me.

It wasn’t as far to the valley as I had thought and we arrived about 8:30.  Just after checking in we got the good news that Tim and Dana had found their bikes (not on the next flight, but purely by happenstance while wandering around the baggage area; they had been on a connecting flight from Phoenix; that is where having a baggage tracking system might have been kinda useful) and were on their way.

Getting our Act (and Bikes) Together
After all the traveling it wasn’t surprising that I slept well.  When I awoke Bob had already risen.  I stepped out our back door and was greeted with the a stunning view:

Mountains in the Morning

Fancy an early morning round?

Death Valley isn’t exactly overrun with lodging so we opted to stay at the Furnace Creek Resort, the location for packet pick-up and the event start and finish.  Furnace Creek is rather a strange place.  You are in the middle of one of the driest places on earth. . . and there is a golf course and palm trees.  Of course, in California it is state law that any place with more than five residents has to have a golf course.  But in all seriousness, I was quite impressed with the resort.  The rooms were nothing fancy, but nice and clean, and the whole place was refreshingly free of the more obvious forms of tourist kitsch (no mini-golf).  Despite the fact that you are basically a captive audience, the various food and drink outlets did a commendable job of not gouging you, while the quality of the food ranged from OK to actually pretty good (the cafe made a great breakfast hash where you could select your own fresh ingredients).

After breakfast we made sure that Dana and Tim had arrived OK and then started reassembling our bikes.  They had all arrived intact and assembly went well. . .for one of us at least.  Bob and I spent a lot of time discussing the issue of the rotation direction of his tires, only to have him flip the bike upright, thereby revealing a minor problem:

Good to go, right?

Good to go, right?

But eventually everything went on the right way round and the four of us saddled up for a quick test ride.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, even in the late morning the temperature was already in the mid-70s, and as we rode north the scenery was stunning.

Does this stunning desert landscape make my arse look big?

Does this stunning desert landscape make my arse look big?

For a bunch of riders still thawing out from too many winter rides over roads that are “maintained” only in the sense of not being totally surrendered to nature, riding across butter smooth rides in warm weather had an air of unreality about it all.

We stopped occasionally to make a few necessary adjustments:

Bike Adjustments

“You will bow to my superior bike knowledge, minion!”

An hour of glorious biking shook out the travel kinks from our legs, ensured the bikes were all in adjustment, and left us the rest of the day to see the sights.

Really, there are no words.  But that has never stopped me before.
I’ve explored Death Valley a couple of times, camping each time, and it is like no other place I’ve ever been, including some other stunning desert landscapes in Joshua Tree and Anza Borrego, the Oregon High Desert, and the Lava Beds in northern California.

The valley is a study in contrasts.  Everywhere you go you can see fragments of the past; strange, incomprehensible relics whose use we can only guess at, abandoned by the pioneers of yesteryear who passed through:

In former years, privacy wasn't such a major concern so porta-johns were made with transparent sides.

In former years, privacy wasn’t such a major concern so porta-johns were made with transparent sides.

But you can also see hints of the future that awaits us all:

For those of you who can't ride a bike the future is not looking good.

For those of you who can’t ride a bike the future is not looking good.

We started our tour at Zabriskie Point, overlooking an area called the Badlands.

A landscape crumpled up and thrown away.

A landscape crumpled up and thrown away.

It had been many years since I went to Death Valley but I don’t ever remember seeing it this clear.  Like the rest of SoCal it sometimes finds itself under the long smog plume that can extend all the way from LA to the Grand Canyon.  But today the air was crystalline.  So we made straight for Dante’s View, the highest car-accessible point in the park.

Damn.  This place is big.  Really big.

Damn. This place is big. Really big.

Looking northwest up the valley.

Looking northwest up the valley.

That tiny thread of black, barely visible at the bottom of the photo, is the road we would be riding the next day.

That tiny thread of black, barely visible at the bottom of the photo, is the road we would be riding the next day.

Everywhere we went we saw cyclists, even making the long 5000 foot plus haul up to Dante’s view.  It made me deeply regret that I wasn’t into cycling at all when I used to live so much closer because everywhere I looked all I could think was “Man, I would love to bike up there!”  And there’s really no part of the valley that doesn’t offer challenging cycling.  Even the flat areas are challenging just simply because of the dryness of the air (we were touring around in an air conditioned van and still guzzling water as fast as we could).

As the sun began to sink, the shadows more sharply defined the eastern side of the valley and we made our way around the area called the Artist’s Drive, so named because of the incredible array of colors created by the variety of chemical deposits in the rocks.



Tim wanders off to investigate the Artist's Palette up close.  A process that included, to our amusement, apparently listening to the rocks.

Tim wanders off to investigate the Artist’s Palette up close. A process that included, to our amusement, apparently listening to the rocks.

While we were waiting for Tim to return from playing geologist, it occurred to me just how special was the group of people I was with.  While we sat there on a fragment of stone wall, several groups of people came, took photos, and left.  But we sat and just drank in the view.  Death Valley is a place that rewards patience; it rewards sitting still.  The more you sit there and look, the more you see.  Colors that you didn’t notice at first, rock formations that are so striking that you can’t understand how you overlooked them in the first place.  But you have to be willing to sit still with a kind of unfocused focus.  It helps massively of course that pretty much the entire valley outside Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells is not cellphone accessible.  But it isn’t just technological distractions that are our enemy.  It is that we humans in the developing world are rapidly evolving into people who want to be distracted, who can’t bear not to be distracted.  But here I was, lucky enough to be with four people who were not simply willing to be in the moment, but to stretch out that moment.  So when Tim came back, we took a photo to commemorate that:


Of course, every moment has to end:

Bob was doing some disturbing ET type thing on the right. . .I didn't want to know.

Bob was doing some disturbing ET type thing on the right. . .I didn’t want to know.

Then it was back to the ranch.  The bar had a surprisingly fine selection of beers so we sat outside on the terrace around a gas fire as the sun went down.  After dinner it was back to our respective rooms to do some last minute checking of the bikes, organizing nutrition.

Then it was time to try and sleep, and to try not to think about the fact that the next day would bring (hopefully) the longest bike ride of my life.


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