“This looks like rattle snake country.” Paul said. “Please be careful…” I looked at the dry, hot, arid surround, scrub and rock… my bike parked at the side of road in the middle of nowhere…and then decided that I didn’t need to pee that badly, after all.
Leaving California, heading West for Death Valley, the terrain slowly changed from brown grassland and hills to an area where it seemed as though a green velvet throw had been gently laid over the hills…jade shimmered with different hues, along the folds in the ‘fabric.’
We started seeing cactus and then a field of literally thousands of wind turbines, hardly turning, as there was no wind. We rode through Mojave and saw an area that appeared to have a lake. As we got closer we realised the lake was actually a ‘sea’ of solar panels in the dry desert valley. We were to see more examples of harnessing the desert’s heat, sun and wind…
Distances between towns became greater and hence the need to fuel up more often and the increasing heat was reason to hydrate more often too. We were riding deeper into desert country and eventually it was so desolate that it felt like we were riding on the moon.
On U.S. Highway 395 we passed a sign that said “Johannesburg” and I couldn’t believe my eyes. When the GPS indicated we take the turn, I was intrigued as I wanted to see what this place was. It turns out it’s a Californian ghost town with a history of prosperous mining. Discovered in the 1800’s it’s located a mile from a place called Randsburg. I could only marvel at the names, which are those of gold mines in South Africa.
We started seeing salt flats, starkly white against the browns, greys, reds and taupes of the surrounding landscape. As we rode through Trona, at Searle’s Lake, the salt flats looked like it had diamonds strewn across the valley floor, as the crystals glistened in the sun.
Our accommodation at Panamint Springs was ‘sheer luxury’ for the desert…no air-conditioning, a very rickety bed, leaking shower, we could hear the neighbours talking through the paper thin walls…but hey, it was shade! We rested in the afternoon and once it had “cooled down” to 31 degrees Celsius, we rode out to watch the sun set over the canyon at Father Power outlook. The rocky landscape was a mix of pinks, greys, browns, ochres, taupes and beige…and turned even more beautiful in the setting sun.
Our alarm was set for 5am the next morning, to avoid the heat of the day. Death Valley was something Paul described as ‘one of his best experiences ever.’ He had never experienced desert or sand dunes before, so it was wonderful to hear him “ooh-ing and ah-ing” and watch him marvel in awe. I had hiked the Fish River Canyon in Namibia so was very familiar with managing the extreme desert heat with early rises and ‘concluding’ your day around 10am, to seek shelter in the shade. This became our routine over the next 10 days, as we explored the deserts of Death Valley, Vegas, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Red Canyon, Zion and Valley of Fire. What surprised me most was how markedly different each terrain was, despite being so relatively close in proximity.
The heat was something which absolutely floored us, despite being so well prepared with very early morning starts, drinking loads of water and resting up in the shade by mid day. All our focus and energy went towards simply coping with the constant and extreme heat.
The desert mirages were fascinating. As we rode, it often seemed that there were ‘rivers’ running across the road ahead, reflecting the sky or approaching cars. But as we approached these ‘rivers’ they just evaporated, as they were simply mirages, created by the desert heat. I found them captivating and mesmerising to watch…
The day we set off for the Grand Canyon, we left at 4:30 am – the time zone in Kanab, Utah was an hour ahead of that in Arizona and we needed the extra early start to catch sun rise at the canyon. Even at that early hour the temperature was already 21degrees Celsius, so as was customary I was riding in just my bikini under my Klim riding gear. This strategy had served me extremely well over the previous days, as the heat just climbed steadily throughout the morning and wearing the least amount of clothing was helping me to cope with the heat.
The sunrise was pretty spectacular but what I was ill prepared for was the temperature dropping – which it consistently did, until at one point we were riding in 5 degrees Celsius! I had made the absolute rookie mistake of using the previous weeks’ experience to go by and was thus not prepared, not carrying my cold weather gear, and soon I was freezing. Paul had a jumper and I had a long sleeved T-shirt, which I carried to keep the sun off my arms. We stopped to put these on, but they were no match for the dropping temperatures, and the almost alpine terrain as we got closer to the canyon.
Teeth chattering, I described my predicament to Paul over the Sena intercoms and he was having a laugh at me being freezing, not carrying my cold weather gear – I was riding in 5 degrees celcius, wearing only my bikini – the last thing I imagined as an outcome for our day… Paul stopped to offer me his jumper and that’s when he discovered he had his heated jacket and down jacket in his pannier all along! Boy was I relieved for his offer of help … and I’ve learned a very valuable lesson from that! Always be prepared for any type of weather.
I have just finished reading “Desert of the heart” by Karen Chamberlain. She beautifully describes her life in the desert landscape of the “Four Corners” area in the USA, which is Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Although Paul and I only got a small taste of the harsh, beautiful, vast, magnificent, scary, awe inspiring, unforgiving, powerful, captivating, eternal landscape, it really touched us in so many unexpected ways. My fondest memory on our desert trip is of getting up at 1am, standing outside and looking up at the vast sky …it looked like the sky had a “measles rash” made up of the millions of pin-prick stars, the spectacular milky way was so clear in the dead of the night, with no light to detract from its magnificence.
I had a conversation with a ranger in Zion, who described how many tourists have succumbed to the heat, by not taking it seriously or not understanding the dangers. I’m grateful for the experience and the learning through our desert journey. It has prepared us well for heading South to Central and South America, where much more desert riding awaits us in countries like Mexico, Bolivia and Peru. I’m also glad the ranger didn’t have ‘yet another crazy tourist’ story to tell…of the girl who died of frost bite because she was riding in 5 degrees Celsius, wearing only her bikini!