It started out as a crazy idea. We were looking for something to do over the two week Christmas break and a few factors had to be taken into consideration – sun, warmth, blue skies and preferably bicycles. I once heard about cycling in Death Valley and just threw it in the air as an option. Gili made it possible. The idea of driving 20 hours each way did not appeal to us, but then again, neither did the other options like staying in rainy and gray Vancouver, or finding a flight at the most expensive time of the year. Checking the temperatures for Death Valley area left us no choice – it showed 20C and sun for every day in the following week. So here we were – two days before Christmas we quickly read about cycling in Death Valley, packed up the car and south we went.
Our first stop was Vancouver, the “Other Vancouver” that is. It was an excellent stop over for us from the long drive (we had only driven five hours by that point), and we very much appreciated the hospitality of Ann and David, friends of Gili’s mom. The next day we left foggy Portland and the Columbia River, leaving the boring Highway #5 behind us and driving through small American towns, crossing high snowy passes, driving by frozen lakes, raging rivers and eventually expansive dry desert scenery with a lone Joshua tree here and there. We stopped in Klamath Falls, Oregon, for some of the best Mexican food we had had in a long time. Then we crossed into California and eventually to Nevada somewhere near Reno, passing through four states in one day. After about 11 hours of driving we found the deserted Walker Lake Campground and pitched our tent for the night. It was Christmas Eve, and not another soul was to be seen in the area.
We woke up on Christmas morning to a view of a beautiful lake, desert mountains with a sprinkling of snow and an ice covered tent. It took us a while to defrost but eventually we managed to get going. We completed the last stretch of the drive listening to the ever present Christmas songs on the radio that seemed more and more irrelevant. There was definitely no “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” for us this Christmas break, only cycling in a desert wonderland, and what a wonderland it was…
We left our car in the small town of Beatty, Nevada, where we befriended Debbie, who let us park our car by her house. By the time we got everything ready it was late in the afternoon, and we were left with only two hours of daylight. We still managed to leave Beatty behind, enter Death Valley NP and ride a steady climb. The road was quiet, but then all of the sudden a beat-up car stopped on the other lane and a woman with a cigarette yelled at us “is this the way to Vegas?”, sure, that’s the way, but we couldn’t think of anything more different than Vegas at that point.
As daylight was rapidly leaving us, we finally reached Daylight Pass on the border between Nevada and California. It was a good place to stop for the night, or so we thought, and we walked our bikes about 200 meters off the road and made our camp. I was exhausted, so I was already tucked inside my sleeping bag when we had a surprise visit from a park ranger at around 7pm. I guess he saw our headlights from the road and came to check on us. Seeing that we were on bicycles and did not look problematic he decided that “being Christmas and all he would let us be…”
As we had camped at Daylight Pass, the first part of the day was all downhill to Death Valley and it was a dramatic descent. After only 3.5km I heard a big bang coming from the back of my bike, which sounded like gun fire. I immediately jumped off my bike and noticed that I had lost all the air in my rear tire. Luckily Gili wasn’t too far ahead. The tube was completely torn and needed to be replaced, so after about 15 minutes I was good to go again. Taking it a bit easier on the downhill now I could genuinely enjoy all the scenery around me. Rounded brown hills, interesting dry plants on the side of the road – some looked like cabbages, others like thorns, above us the big open blue sky, different colorful formations of rocks, little traffic and no trucks (they are not allowed in the park). I have missed the desert. It’s been a long time since I spent a long stretch of time in the simplicity of the desert, the open quietness and the remoteness of it and all the other good things it has to offer.
When we reached Mesquite Spring campground in the late afternoon we felt a bit like celebrities. People greeted us as we arrived, telling us that they had seen us on the road and that they admire us. A woman even came up offering us some beer. We turned down the offer since we are not big beer drinkers, but it was still nice to get all of the attention. For the next 10 days we were constantly approached by people who wanted to know more about our cycling trip, showing again how bikes are excellent ice breakers. The Americans we met on the trip were all friendly, generous, curious, warm-hearted and just plain nice. I can’t imagine having so many conversations with so many random people if we weren’t travelling by bicycle.
Scotty’s Castle seems very much out of place, but maybe that’s the attraction. It was built in the 1920’s by a rich couple from Chicago as their private oasis in the desert. It was hard to reach back then, dead hot in summer, pleasantly warm in winter and isolated from the rest of the world. Scotty at first tried to set them up by telling them about a mine he invented in order to get money from them. They weren’t mad at him, on the contrary, they were grateful, since it was because of him that they discovered Death Valley. Scotty’s grave is up above the castle with a famous quote of his: “There are four things I live by: don’t say anything that will hurt someone else, don’t give advice to anyone – nobody will take it anyway. Don’t complain. Don’t explain.”
When we got back to camp after exploring Scotty’s Castle and hiking around the deep and colourful Ubehebe Crater, we were surprised to find a neat pile of firewood by the fire pit. Strange, we thought. After about an hour I found a note by the tent which read: “To the Canadian Adventurers: enjoy a nice warm campfire on us tonight Happy and safe travels to you – Your American Friends – Llew and Julia from California”. What a great gesture. We sure did enjoy the warm fire, which allowed us to stare at the stars a bit longer. Every night was a mystical experience, as we had dinner while the sun set and a dark blanket covered the big open space above us with millions of bright dots everywhere. After living in the city for so long one tends to forget how amazing the stars can be on a dark desert night, and how special it is to just stare at them and think about their light traveling up to millions of years to get to us.
As we were leaving the campground the next morning an older wise man approached us. He was by himself on a road trip to Georgia to photograph bugs and insects. He had a sad smile and a lot of wisdom in his eyes. “You should tell each other every night how lucky you are to have found each other, and how great it is that you both like cycling and adventures so much” he said. I was left astounded. How could a man who doesn’t know us at all read right through us? His words stayed with us, and we do remind ourselves from time to time how lucky we are.
As we were riding through the “Devil’s Cornfield”, an area with weird looking thorny bushes which were growing on both sides of the road, we had another strange encounter. On our right hand side there was a band playing music in the middle of the desert. At first I was sure it was U2, doing something similar to Joshua Tree, like “Devil’s Bush”. But it wasn’t U2, it was a local band named “Howlin Dogma” from Bishop Nevada recording a music video there. Their tunes were catchy and they were sure attracting attention from passers-by.
Our next campground, at Stovepipe Wells, was a huge parking lot and looked very unattractive at first. But it turned out that they had “tent only” sites at the back and we found a really nice spot. The children from the families around us were busy running around and playing in the bushes behind camp, and the parents seemed relaxed that they don’t have to constantly have their eyes on their kids. A nice family from California invited us to join their campfire and roast some marshmallows with them. They were very chill and easy going parents of three children aged 15, 10 and 5. The children too were very friendly and Sienna, the 10 year old, told us how she too likes to ride her bike around and wishes she could ride more. On the spot, the family started planning a few trips around the area where they live. Maybe one day she will find herself cycle touring somewhere in the world too.
When there is good tail wind, a newly paved road, little traffic, nice warm sun, changing and interesting scenery and I feel like I am basically flying on my bike I remember why I love cycling so much. When we reached Texas Spring Campground after an easy fun ride, a guy with one tooth yelled at us with a smile: “You’re making us all look bad”. He is a nature photographer and had been in Death Valley for a few weeks, busy taking photos in the early mornings.
Again we left our tent standing and went off for a day of exploration without our gear to ride the “Artist’s Drive”. First the road climbed steeply away from the flattish Death Valley and high above us was Telescope Peak with a layer of snow covering its top. We then passed the “Artist’s Palette” where rocks in different colors such as green, red and purple peppered the hillsides. Then the road became really narrow as we passed through a neat canyon and we flew back down to the valley. It was one of the most scenic roads I’ve ever ridden.
On New Year’s Eve we cycled down to Badwater Basin, the lowest place in the Western hemisphere. Coming from Israel where we have the Dead Sea, which is the lowest place on Earth, that title did not sound so impressive to us. From there the road became really quiet and we hardly saw any more cars or people. What we did see were three coyotes just standing in the middle of the road. I guess they got used to people feeding them and they did not seem intimidated at all. They are really just wild dogs, but I still don’t like them very much, after having an unfortunate incident with a coyote in Vancouver a while back…
From time to time we just stopped and listened to the quietness of the desert. We are so used to always hearing something: traffic, our neighbour taking a shower at 7:30am every morning, the background noise of the computer, music or just other people around us. In the desert we just heard nothing, which was an absolute delight. Not to mention being completely away from the internet and all that it brings – it just gave us the time and freedom to be alone and with each other with no interference whatsoever.
As the sun was setting we turned on to a gravel side road, rode a little bit farther and pitched our tent in the middle of nowhere. We watched the dramatic purple and red sunset blasting into the sky – 2013 was leaving us in the most dramatic way possible. It was an eventful year in our lives too – a “peak year” as we called it, which was making a memorable exit. After dinner we just gazed at the millions of stars again and with no one else in sight, it was just like we were the only two people in the universe. What an incredible way to finish this awesome year we had together, and to greet the new one.
However, 2014 already started with a challenge. We had to climb over two passes, the highest one, was 1010 meters high, but we started from below sea level and at first the wind was against us too. The climb was a giant slow slog and we were making minimal progress. Eventually at around 3:30pm we reached Salisbury Pass! Finally we could relax a bit and have a short break and snack. But then a car stopped and a confused Asian couple stopped to ask if we knew the way to Vegas. Their phones didn’t have reception and they were lost without their GPS. We showed them the way on the map and they were grateful. It is always good to carry a map and to have a backup and not to trust only technology that could easily let you down.
From the pass we had a long beautiful cruise down to Shoshone, leaving Death Valley behind. “Goodbye Death Valley” we called as we were descending, “hope to see you again soon”. Shoshone was once a successful mining town and today it is almost a ghost town.
When we rolled into the campground, something seemed a bit out of place. On one of the sites there was a truck, but instead of the usual looking trucks, this one seemed like it was taken out of a fairy tale. Two turrets were sticking out making the whole thing into an impressive wooden castle. We then located the owner Michel who had spent 4,000 (!) hours building it himself. He and his wife Christy live in “Florence” most of the year, and together they have a blacksmith show in fairs around the US. We could easily have spent the whole night exchanging travel stories by the communal fire, but the long day was taking its toll, and also the shower was calling my name. After eight days in the desert with no shower there was nothing better than a long hot shower.
Now that we were out of the park we started seeing trucks again, many of them were carrying milk from Nevada into California. At lunch time we reached “Death Valley Junction” where we found the “Amargosa Opera House“. What’s an Opera House doing in the middle of the desert, we thought?
The building was very unimpressive from the outside, so we were completely shocked when we entered. The woman who owns it, Marta Becket, was a dancer from NY who passed through, fell in love, and bought the place in 1967. Shortly after she moved from the Big Apple to basically the middle of nowhere. She was an actress who hoped to perform there but since no one came to see her, she decided to paint her own audience. She spent years painting the walls and ceiling, depicting the king and queen of Spain, American slaves, native Americans, and monks and nuns. They were all there to enjoy her show. Now in her 80’s she is one of the only two official residents of this “town” (the other one is the caretaker…).
When we crossed into Nevada again a huge fiberglass cow was standing tall near a roadside casino and hotel. Gambling is legal in Nevada, so of course there was a casino just as you enter the state. Surprisingly we managed to find ice cream in the casino, and despite it being only 3pm there were already some people by the slot machines. We camped again in the middle of the desert and had 11 hours of solid sleep on our last night in the desert. With the long nights and short days we were definitely not sleep deprived on this trip.
The next morning we passed a brothel on the side of the road (also legal in Nevada) not too far from where we spent the night, and also the “Area 51” store, selling souvenirs of aliens and such. We then had a few hours of mostly boring riding along the Highway 95, but at least there were nice shoulders. Then we rolled back into Beatty, which now felt familiar to us. This amazing trip was coming to an end and it was time to start driving back. We packed our old Subaru and sadly said goodbye to the beloved desert.
The drive back was almost nice, open big roads to cross Nevada and later Oregon. We stopped for a freezing night in a campground in Winnemuca, a graceless town full of bars and casinos. We had excellent Mexican food in Bend, Oregon, and stopped for the night in Vancouver, WA again. To break the drive we stopped in Seattle and visited Theo’s chocolate (again). A sweet end to a super sweet trip…