Hell on Wheels: My Motorcycle Trek Across Death Valley

One man's harrowing journey through a desert wasteland straight out of Mad Max.
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One man's harrowing journey through a desert wasteland straight out of Mad Max.

It's a gorgeous December afternoon in Death Valley and I’m thinking I might die. I’m speeding along a winding dirt road that’s perilously strewn with sand, gravel, ruts, berms and rocks. This would be cake in a jeep or a buggy. But I’m on a motorcycle. 

The bike, a Honda CRF 250L is built for this sort of rugged terrain. Problem is, I’m not. I’ve ridden lots motorcycles over the years, yet none off-road. The Honda is slipping and sliding through patches of thick gravel. I’m eating pounds of dust. My legs burn. I feel like I'm not really in control, just along for the ride. To make matters worse, the panicked voice in my head is growing louder.

“Please let me get out of here!”

“Do NOT drop this motorcycle!!”

“YOU DO NOT WANT TO CRASH IN DEATH VALLEY!”

Two months earlier my friend Ty, a California-based bike enthusiast, called me to ask if I wanted to join him in a two-wheeled adventure through the largest national park in the contiguous 48. It’ll be tough, he explained. Taxing. Not for the timid. Is it dangerous I inquired? “We can call for help when we’re out there,” said Ty. “But it’s a really long way off.”

Sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of trip. “I’m in,” I replied.

After months of running, weight training and cutting back on boozy late nights, I found myself in the parking lot of a Motel 6 in Beatty, Nevada, a 110-year-old mining town known as "The Gateway to Death Valley." There I mounted the Honda, a remarkably efficient dual-sport featuring a liquid-cooled, DOHC, single-cylinder, four-stroke, PGM-FI engine with a displacement of 249.6 cc and top speed around 80 mph. On or off-road, says Ty, this beast performs. 

I zip up my coat and fire up the bike. Five minutes later we're heading into 3.4 million acres of some of the most desolate and daunting terrain in North America. One of the hottest and driest places on Earth (in 1913, it hit 134 degrees). Maybe, chirps the voice in my head, I've just made a horrible mistake.

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After a brief visit to Rhyolite, a ghost town on the Nevada border we cross into California (most of Death Valley lies in the Golden State) and officially entered the park. It is the most stark, barren landscape I have ever encountered. Cruising at 60 mph, I gaped at mountains, valleys, sand dunes, craters, and rock formations that had been belched up over the past billion years. 

What I didn’t see was any indigenous life. Not an animal, a bird, a reptile. We didn’t come across another human being for a solid hour. It was a creepy sensation, and decked out in my gear (helmet, goggles, protective boots, motocross racing pants, shin/knee/hip/elbow/shoulder pads, chest protector, and armored gloves) I felt like Mad Max hurtling through a stunning, dystopian wasteland.

By mid-afternoon we arrived at Badwater Basin, which, at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest spot in North America. A massive salt bed carpets the basin, and I’d have sworn I was on Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine if it weren’t for all of the Japanese tourists snapping photos. However, we didn’t linger long. 

We had a lot of highway ahead of us and Ty warned that we had to be back by sundown (4:45) when the temperature drops precipitously. After a quick stop to refuel (there are only three such spots in the whole park) we cranked open the throttles open eventually pulled into our Motel 6 parking lot at 4:35. I was ready to hit the town.

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Okay, "town" might be a stretch. While many of the million annual Death Valley tourists opt to camp, some, like us, stayed in Beatty. About 60 miles west of Area 51, this off-the-grid outpost of 1,000 people was like a modern-day Deadwood. I quickly discovered there were only four entertainment options: eat, drink, gamble, or hit the local brothel, this being Nye county, where the world’s oldest profession is legal. Having worked up an appetite, I walked down to Beatty’s most celebrated eatery, Happy Burro Chili and Beer. Featured beers? Bud and PBR. Signature dish? A $5 bowl of chili that’s as good as I’ve had anywhere west of the Mississippi.

Next, in search of a proper saloon, I needed look no further than the Sourdough Saloon next door. Inside there were a handful of locals, video poker, pool tables and George Strait wailing on the jukebox. According to the bartender, a 50-something bottle blonde who’s wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey and missing a front tooth, the joint opened up in 1906. From the looks of the place (and the crowd), I had no reason to doubt her.

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After a shot of whiskey and a cold beer, I moseyed up the main drag and popped into the Stagecoach Hotel and Casino. I hoped to find a lively crowd of truckers and prospectors playing poker, but instead I was met with a bunch of chain-smoking senior citizens pumping penny slots. I took it as a sign to pack it in. Tomorrow, I’d been warned, wouldn’t be as easy as today.

The next morning, over coffee and a chili omelet, I pestered Ty for details of the day’s ride. Distance, time, level of difficulty. He avoided specifics.

“You’ll be fine,” he said.

“But I’m not that confident off-road,” I explained and pointed to my head. “I’m also not 100%. Sinus problems.”

“Don’t worry. We won’t leave you behind.”

I wasn’t worried about being left behind. I was worried about crashing. In the middle of nowhere. With help "a really long way off."

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Back on the Hondas. Four miles out of Beatty, we turned off SR 374 at a sign that reads "Titus Canyon", a breathtaking twenty-seven mile route featuring limestone cliffs, folded layers of multi-colored rock, and flood-carved canyons.

Within five minutes I knew I was in trouble. In addition to the spectacular scenery, the non-paved Titus Canyon road was a hellish potpourri of hazards. Rumbling over a swath of loose rocks, my handlebars started slapping back and forth. I was sure I was about to wipe out until I remembered to follow Ty’s advice about staying on the throttle. I did and stayed upright. Barely. 

We climbed steadily up through the canyon. Although the road had improved— less gravel, fewer menacing rocks and ruts—a new looming disaster arose. Cliffs. One side of the road now dropped off hundreds of feet, meaning there was no room for driver error up there. Take a turn too fast, slide out too far, accidentally hit the gas instead of the brakes, and me and the Honda are plunging to our doom. I was sweating, shaking, and occasionally even terrified. But we couldn’t turn back. The road, I was told, is one way. The only way out is to go forward.

After a nice break at the summit, we headed down. If it sounds easier, it wasn’t. Fatigue set in. My confidence withered. Snaking along, whispered prayers flow from my fluttering lips.

That’s how I got to this point. Thinking I might die.

“We CAN call for help,” the voice says. “But it’s really a LONG way off!”

Walls of rock rise around me as the trail narrows. I imagine this is what driving to the center of the earth might be like. My legs burn. My head buzzes. We stop for water and to gaze at the Canyon Narrows, the tightest part of the route. It’s breathtaking, but part of me wishes I was back with the old-timers playing penny slots at The Stagecoach.

“Only a couple of miles left,” assures Ty.

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Ten minutes later we emerge from Titus Canyon. I dismount and gaze out at the infinite expanse of Death Valley park. I feel like the smallest being on the planet. No matter. I’ve survived. I’m covered in dust, exhausted, sore, and I’ve never, in a way, felt better.

“It’s 40 miles back to the hotel,” says Ty. “But it’s all paved from here.”

I wipe the grit from my goggles, zip up my jacket and hop back on the bike. “No problem.”