Death Valley Days: I fought the law and we both won

I could fill a book with stories of my interactions with cops – nearly always on my motorcycle and typically with city traffic police or highway patrol officers. In retrospect, my view of our relationship was somewhat warped. Me: A strong desire to ride at far higher speeds than the posted limits and Them: To stop my ass from doing that. I used technology (radar detectors and laser jammers), cunning, and paperwork against them. At one point, I even got a badge. This story covers one of the “with badge” incidents. Here is how it began.

I was living in Palo Alto, CA, when my good friend and riding buddy, David Ezequelle pulled out a single sheet of paper over lunch one day in March and showed me his idea for a week-long motorcycle excursion. It looked sort of like this:

Notes, April 2 to April 6, with locations

The start day finally came and I hopped on my Suzuki V-Strom, fresh from its suspension upgrade from Northern California’s most reputable motorcycle suspension tuner, Phil Douglas at “After Shocks.” Our riders meet for breakfast at Buck’s, the famous launching pad for hundreds of startup companies; where PayPal got their first money and many anxious entrepreneurs outline plans for the “next Google” to jaded venture capitalists. But no plans were pitched at our table this early Monday morning and napkins remained free of diagrams. Instead, bikes were inspected, tire pressures re-checked and coffee cups drained in anticipation of a week away from the office. This would be a Monday – Friday route on some of the best of California’s motorcycle roads, from Death Valley to Sequoia National Park.

The observatory at the top of Mt. Hamilton, east of San Jose

We watch countless commuters clog the highways leading into the former fruit groves of Silicon Valley, while we ride in the opposite direction, feeling as if we’re playing hooky. Our plan is to be in San Luis Obispo by nightfall so, of course, we head the other way to Patterson by way of Mt. Hamilton and a stop at the observatory perched on top. Highway 130 from San Jose to Mt. Hamilton is a fabulous road filled with tight technical corners providing plenty of opportunity to slide off the seat and push a knee toward the pavement. The narrow road hugs the contour of the land with so many switchbacks and direction changes, the compass indicator on the GPS never stops spinning. After a quick break at the observatory, we follow Hwy 130 down the back side as it becomes the Del Puerto Canyon Road and drops us into Patterson. This 100-mile section offers compressed, non-stop twisties. With endless sets of banked and off-camber turns, it is easily as interesting as the more popular westward routes from Silicon Valley up to Skyline Drive and down to the coast. But this road always has far less traffic, and on this Monday morning, we have it to ourselves.

David had figured out that with the right credentials, we could get onto the Ft. Hunter Liggett Army post and more importantly, exit out the back. We each had to show full documentation (driver’s license, bike registration and proof of insurance). We also underwent careful inspection by the guards at the gate and they had to be sure there were no live fire exercises scheduled while we would be in the area.

Ft. Hunter Liggett is interesting, not only because at 165,000 acres it is the largest US Army Reserve post anywhere, it also contains the Junipero Serra Peak and the headwaters of the Nacimiento River. We quickly pass through a small portion of the base, as our real goal is the Ft. Hunter Liggett road which turns into Forest Road 22S01 and winds thirty-five miles over the mountains to US 1. It is one of the most under-used and incredibly beautiful roads in the USA – gravel, of course. Riding through the tall trees and constant switchbacks, the smell of the distant moist ocean air quietly moving up the mountain towards us is intoxicating.

Dinner in San Luis Obispo was at the Tsurugi Japanese restaurant on Higuera Street, a short walk from our digs at the Best Western. The table is soon filled with work-of-art sushi and fresh sashimi and beer bottles. The Uni (sea urchin) draws raves from some, but the niguri and kohada sushi work for me. Everything is delicious on the tongue and beautiful to the eye.

In the morning we ride to Buttonwillow for breakfast, taking a short jaunt north on Hwy 101 and then the exquisite ride on Hwy 58 (California Canyon Highway) over the mountains and the north edge of Los Padres National Forest. This group believes in Fred Rau’s adage to “earn your breakfast,” which means riding at least an hour before pulling up a chair to the breakfast table. After eating we cruise through Bakersfield and down into Mojave, where we leave Hwy 58 and take Hwy 14 north to Death Valley.

Entering the Death Valley area, we’re near the Borax mines around Boron, CA. This is just south of Searles Valley and along the way to Furnace Creek. And this, boys and girls, is where my encounter with the local constabulary begins.

Coming into a small town, we’re stopped by an ore train of at least a hundred cars. We wait what seems like 20-30 minutes as the exceptionally slow-moving train passes and we finally see the last car. Just as that final car is within 25-30 yards of passing the crossing area, the train slows to a stop – pauses for a few minutes, and then reverses and slowly backs up a few hundred yards and stops again. It is hot. We are parched. For the next 15 minutes we wait as the train slowly reverses direction, pulls just about clear of the crossing area, stops for several minutes, and then reverses direction again. Being the somewhat impatient member of the group, the next time the final car gets almost across the road in front of us, I cross the left lane of traffic, turn onto the sidewalk and ride the sidewalk to cross the tracks right beyond where the final car of the train has stopped. Once past, I cross a grassy strip and get back onto the street. Finally I’m on the other side of this blasted train!

AZ Highway Patrol Challenge coin. Never leave home without it.

At the very moment when I’d begun to congratulate my ingenuity and creativity I saw the police officer leaning against his patrol car, motioning at me to join him. Oh Shit! (Or, as we learned in another story, Oh Shoot!) Damn! I pulled my bike to the front of his car and dismounted. I was in no hurry, as my riding buddies were still trapped on the other side of the train and oblivious. They couldn’t see me any better than I could see the police car waiting for me when I’d made the move to circumvent the train by riding on the sidewalk. Approaching me, he waits until my helmet is off and lets me reach for my wallet, with a smirk on his face. Opening my wallet and going for my driver’s license, I make sure he sees the prominently displayed AZ Highway Patrol challenge coin shaped like a police officer’s badge. “Ah, Damn, let me see that,” he says and I hand him my wallet. He looks at it for a few seconds and hands my wallet back saying, “Sheesh, we just paved that sidewalk bit a week ago and I’ve been out here just waiting for some idiot to use it to drive around the train so I could ticket them. And then the first guy around it has to be a god damn cop.”

I hastily explained that no I wasn’t an officer or even a former officer, but had gone through police moto officer training in Arizona and had many friends who were officers. I continued that I’d greatly appreciate it if he extended me the courtesy of a warning, but the letter of the unwritten rule (cops don’t ticket other cops) really wouldn’t apply. It was his call. He smiled and said, “Yeah, yeah, okay, I get it, but I’m still not giving you a ticket.” We talked for another ten minutes or so. He was a super nice guy. Finally he says, “Well, knowing this train’s pattern, your friends should be coming past here in about 3 minutes if you want to get suited back up and on your way.”

Then I had an idea. “Hey, want to have some fun with these guys?” He looked at me quizzically as if to say ‘What have you got in mind?” I explained: “How about when they drive by, you have me bent over the front of your hood in cuffs, and you give them the hairy eye ball, angry cop look?” He loved the idea, “OK, this is better than getting to write you a ticket.” So, I assumed the position, he got his cuffs out and we were posed that way as Jon, David, Ron and Kevin rode by. You’ve never seen 4 guys ride past a police officer more sober than this group. From my vantage point splayed across the patrol car hood, I couldn’t see them very well, but when they’d driven past, my new officer pal told me their eyes were riveted down the road, far in the distance, never once even glancing at him or me.

After they were well down the road, we had a good laugh, shook hands and I was back on the V-Strom and riding off. Several miles down the road I saw my friends, pulled over and waiting by the side of the road. I slowed down, but kept my eyes focused straight ahead and rode past them without looking at them or stopping. They quickly pulled in behind me. As we headed for Furnace Creek I invented different ways to craft my story for them, before planning to eventually tell them the truth.

We arrived at our hotel in the aptly-named Furnace Creek with plenty of time to soak in the spring-fed pool where I related the details of my faux arrest. My story fell far short of the ones they’d imagined when they saw me laying across the hood of the patrol car.

Death Valley is hot. While everyone knows of Death Valley’s heat, it is hard to appreciate just how hot Furnace Creek can get. Back in 1913, it recorded the second-highest temperature ever recorded in the world of 134°F. But that is only the half of it. The ground temperature can be much warmer – as much as 80°F hotter than the air. A ground temperature of 201°F was once recorded. On average, the valley floor is 40 percent hotter than the surrounding air temperature. You don’t want to be walking to the pool barefoot! Thankfully, it is April and still less than 95°F.

Death Valley landscape is incredible.

Why so hot? Death Valley is a long, narrow basin up to 280 feet below sea level and walled by high, steep mountain ranges. With clear, dry air and virtually no plant cover, sunlight heats the surface of the desert relentlessly. The heat radiates and becomes trapped in the depth of the valley. While hot air does rise, this hot air is trapped by the high valley walls.

But the result is far from boring. The landscape in Death Valley is spectacular, with some of the most surreal topography on the globe – including sand dunes that go on for hundreds of miles, white salt flats that are blinding even behind extra-dark sun glasses, sculptured hills and badlands laced with rushing water, and multi-hued canyon walls.

On our first day we seek out the healing waters of the hot springs in Tecopa. Half of the group stays for a long soak while the rest of us head to the date farm at China Ranch. Reaching the date farm is a bit of a challenge the first time. Heading south from the hot springs at Tecopa, you stay left (east) on the unmarked Old Spanish Trail Hwy for about 2 miles. Spanish Trail Highway heads off to the left, but you’ll want to stay right on Furnace Creek Road until you see the sign for China Ranch. Jim Hyde of RawHyde Adventures, who rides a lot in this area, provided me with the best tip, the GPS coordinates, which got me right there (35° 48.00.36’N, 116° 11.42.45’W).

China Ranch is a working date farm in the middle of a vast desert.

Part of what amazes first time visitors to China Ranch is the contrast of traveling for hundreds of miles without seeing anything green, and then dropping down into this amazingly lush oasis in the middle of the desert. While open and welcoming to visitors (they have a gift shop with local art, honey and, of course, dates in a multitude of varietals, date bread, date cookies, date bars, date shakes and date cakes), this is a working date farm. The date grove was planted in the early 1920’s. Half the trees are male and produce only pollen, with the female date trees producing 100-300 pounds of dates each per season. Even without the delicious date shakes made fresh to order with thick vanilla ice cream, China Ranch is worth a visit.

The next morning, we decide to ride two hours for breakfast — something you only do on vacation and then, probably, only in places like Death Valley. Our early morning trek south on Hwy 178 from Furnace Creek to Shoshone was uneventful. Riding along with the Black Mountains in the distance, the morning sun causes the brilliant white salt in Badwater Basin to shimmer. It is easy to imagine it full of water. Reaching Shoshone, we’re hungry, and everything at the Crowbar Café is delicious.

After breakfast we head toward Zabriskie Point, before aiming the bikes back to our hotel for more pool time and dinner at the Wrangler Buffet. We take a spin up the nine-mile Artist’s Drive. This spectacular loop is 15 miles south of Furnace Creek on Hwy 178. When the sun strikes the rocks, the minerals reveal yellows, oranges, deep reds and even greens. Not far away is an overlook providing a view of the Devil’s Golf Course, 200 square miles of salt residue from Death Valley’s last significant lake which evaporated 2,000 years ago. Even the off-road tires of Kevin’s BMW 1200GS on this ride would do poorly amongst the gnarly salt clumps and spires, even if it were allowed, which it’s not.

To many people, nothing symbolizes Death Valley better than its Twenty Mule Teams, used to pull massive wagons hauling borax from the Harmony Borax Works mine near Furnace Creek to the railhead near Mojave. This was a brutal 65 mile, ten day trip across dirt, barely improved, primitive roads. The teams only ran for six years, from 1883 to 1889, but they’ve come to symbolize the Old West. Part of this came about because of an advertising campaign promoting 20-Mule-Team Borax Soap along with the Death Valley Days radio shows and later, the television program. There is one of these remaining wagons in front of the Furnace Creek Ranch and another one is located at Harmony Borax Works. These 20-mule teams were a massive technical improvement. Teamster Ed Stiles was credited with first hooking up an additional six mules to the head of a 12-mule string, with two draft horses as “wheelers,” allowing an extra wagon to be added and giving birth to what would become famous, the “20-mule team.”

In those days, a wagon cost $900 to build and had 7-foot-high rear wheels and 5-foot-wheels in front. The bed was 16 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Empty, they weighed just under 4 tons, but full, the two loaded wagons plus a 500 gallon water tank made a payload of 73,200 lbs or 36 ½ tons. Operating this “mule train” were a driver with a 20-foot long whip with a six foot handle and the teamster who harnessed and managed the mules, rode the horses and handled the brake of the lead wagon. A third team member was a “swamper,” who rode on the rear wagon and operated its brake on downgrades and also filled in as the cook and dishwasher. Dishes were washed with sand, as water was too precious to use for cleaning.

These ore hauling wagons were massive.

Each 20-mule team and two oak wagons completed the 130-mile round-trip between the works and the railhead at Mojave, Calif., in about 20 days. A team left the works every four days. At the top of the market, they would ship about 2 million pounds of borax a year from the two facilities, Harmony and Amargosa. The wagons went away when the narrow-gauge Borate & Daggett Railroad was completed in 1898. Today, Rio Tinto’s open pit U.S. Borax mine at Boron mines over 12,000 tons of industrial borates every day, half of the world’s total supply.

There’s no better way to conclude a trip to Death Valley than to experience the extreme opposite of hot and flat – the snow and peaks of Sequoia National Park. We leave early and stop for breakfast in Ridgecrest, then head over Walker Pass up to Isabella Lake and a bit of coffee. A variety of winding mountain roads brings us to our stop for the night in Three Rivers, about ten miles below the entrance to Sequoia National Park.

At over 7,500 ft elevation in Sequoia National Park. (L to R: Route planner David Ezequelle, his brother Jon, Sam Huey and Steve Larsen. (Photographer Kevin Berkholtz)

Our final stretch of good riding on this trip is into the park on Hwy 198. We climb over 6,500 feet and see snow on distant peaks. Passing the mighty sequoia forest and soaring Sierra peaks, we head for the crown jewel of the park and stop for lunch at Waksachi Lodge. In the parking lot we get pictures of the bikes against the snow and throw snowballs at each other. After lunch, we give a mother black bear and her cub a wide berth and point the bikes down to Squaw Valley. Sequoia is such a vast and wonderful park, it deserves it’s own separate newsletter. Skirting south of Fresno to avoid the traffic, we cut cross the central valley. In Hollister I stop at custom motorcycle seat manufacturer, Corbin. While we have lunch in their cafeteria, they install a new seat on the V-Strom. It takes a bit of caffeine, but we make it safely back to the bay area and home. All-in-all, a great way to spend a week and I’ll say it sure beat work.

Note: There are more pictures and maps in my original post.