The LA / Barstow / Las Vegas route chart described the next quarter-mile of Red Rock Canyon as a “Rock Garden.” What was actually off the front wheel of my 600lb motorcycle didn’t resemble any garden I had ever seen. Gray exhaust smoke hung low in the canyon, glowing in the late afternoon’s winter sun and the air was thick with the smell of cooking clutch plates and overheated engines. The trail ahead merged into a dry creek bed through a long, narrow gorge that was filled with car-sized boulders and steep rock faces. In it was a traffic jam of bodies and two-wheeled machines. The scene was a mass of human-mechanical struggle. Some motorcycles lay on their sides, others were bottomed-out over high jagged rocks as their riders fought to stay upright, exhaust pipes belching, tires spinning and men cursing. One bike even appeared to have been abandoned, it’s front wheel inexplicably buried in silt up to the axle.
An unending stream of riders flowed up the canyon, some pausing to consider what they were about to face, others throwing themselves into the trail’s maw without a moments hesitation. Men on torque-addled enduro machines with tall, supple suspensions and claw-like knobby tires throttled their impossibly light machines onto the rocks one atop of another.
My 1200cc BMW felt heavier than it ever had . Climbing off, I hiked down the trail to let Stacie know that we had to turn back. We had come so far over that past couple days, overcoming miles of deep sand, boulder strewn fields and single track hill climbs, but now it was over. This final metal mashing section seemed impassable. The notion that we would have to turn back and go around the mountain to Las Vegas by the “easy route,” left me defeated. I didn’t even have the energy to be angry at myself for not being good enough. Redrock Canyon had humbled me. After covering hundreds of off-road miles the final turn onto the paved highway for Las Vegas was a mere ten miles further up this trail and over the mountain. But it might as well have been another hundred miles. Riders on bikes 300lbs lighter than mine were melting down in the sausage grinder ahead and the prospect of getting my beastly BMW through the carnage seemed impossible.
When Stacie had first told me about the LA / Barstow / Vegas Dual Sport ride we knew immediately we were doing it. 2014 marked the 30th year that the two-day, five-hundred mile event was taking place becoming one of the most famous two-day dual sport rides in the world. It’s organizers plan new routes every year, with difficulty options that range from “easy,” to “hard.” The more difficult routes are designed to be challenging for smaller off-road focused motorcycles and the easier ones are big-bike friendly. Although as we later found, there were some sections that had many riders wondering aloud, “Are you sure this is the ‘EASY’ route?” Which ever route is chosen for LAB2V, completing it is a right of passage.
Shaken from thought, I remembered that I was limping. The three plastic butter knives I had taped together and ziptied to the top of my left boot were flapping loosely as I hobbled down the trail. Earlier that day I had put my foot out to point out a large chunk of broken asphalt for Stacie following behind. My foot caught the chunk at 50 mph, knocking my leg backwards in an explosion of pain. Certain that I had broken a toe, I couldn’t up-shift without catching my breath in agony. Later, during the lunch stop in Sandy Creek Nevada, I peeled off my boot, bandaged my foot, then engineered a shifting brace from the plastic knives and heavy-duty zip-ties. Hobbling down the trail it didn’t matter that my prosthetic device was broken. It never worked anyway. The plastic knives were too flimsly and I couldn’t feel the shifter with them. I made due, upshifting with my heel.
When I reached Stacie to let her know we would have to turn around, I was stopped short when our friends Brody and Phil from team Bixby Moto rolled up the trail on a pair of haggard 50cc scooters regaled in shabby, stars-and-stripes the paint jobs. Both were a mess of hand, spray-painted red and white stripes, with dripping white dollops that passed for stars. Three Bixby Moto scooter riders had started LAB2V the day before, but only Brody and Phil were with us on the trail. Their leader Andrew had apparently forged on ahead.
Brody told us they were turning back. He had cracked the engine case of his scooter and was worried that he’d cease the engine when it ran dry of oil. The rest of the scooter looked no better. Plastic body panels were cracked and hung loose and others were missing entirely. The turn signal lights had been knocked off and the headlight was missing, leaving a sad, empty sockets with wires hanging out. Phil’s scooter was only slightly better. It’s engine case was still intact and he’d managed to tape the headlight back into place. After two days and hundreds of miles of off-road abuse, it was a wonder the scooters were even still running.
LAB2V 2014 Red Rock Canyon – YouTube
We offered them a quart of oil I was carrying and told them it was only 10 more miles to the pavement over the mountain. In spite of their upbeat humor, I could tell that they too were as disappointed to be turning back.
Everyone who rode LAB2V in 2014 knew about the Bixby Moto scooters. Whether people thought they were hilarious or outright insane, they added just the right element of levity to an event that can be deadly serious. Following the first day, nearly everyone had hardship stories about zero visibility dust clouds, hurt riders or destroyed motorcycles. No matter what anyone thought of the Bixby guys, there was no argument that they are talented riders and they proved it too – out there in the harshest desert on the most unlikely machines.
It was now about 3:00 PM in the afternoon which left us with about two hours before sunset. We were going to have to do a good amount of back-tracking to get to the easy route into Las Vegas. I began the long limp back up to where my BMW was parked.
When I got back down the trail to where Stacie was, Phil and Brody were still there. “We’re going for it,” Brody told us. While I had been away Stacie had convinced them that we were all going to make it over this mountain together. I had never gotten around to telling Stacie that I didn’t think we could make it. It seemed she never thought otherwise, and now that we were a team of four, scooters, BMW and Huskey were going to make a run at at Las Vegas.To scout the best lines through the rocky quagmire, I hopped aboard Stacie’s Husky TE310 and rolled out onto the rocks. Transitioning from my 600 pound adventure bike to Stacie’s 245 pound enduro machine required some mental and physical gymnastics. Riding the super heavy BMW over challenging terrane requires a number of techniques that can be counter-intuitive to riding more straightforward dirt bikes. Body position through turns and managing the tractor-like torque of the 1200cc twin becomes unconscious and reflexive after tens of thousands of miles of riding, and it took a moment to adjust to the completely different motorcycle.
Where the GS is massive the Husky is svelte. Beneath me the lighter machine felt like a mountain bike with a motor. It’s seeming weightlessness, low gearing and powerful motor is a near antithesis to the GS. The husky delivers when you open the throttle and go, not requiring the caution and thoughtfulness of the big bike.
After a minute into the rock field I was adjusted to the bike, and it was a joy. Rock climbs and boulders weren’t feats physical effort – instead they were actually fun. Halfway through the rock garden, I was wishing I could do the rest of the ride on Stacie’s bike. Over the past couple of days on LAB2V, I’d lifted my toppled GS out of deep sand and boulder fields at least a half-a-dozen times. Earlier that day I was even thrown over the bars at 35 mph when the front wheel had caught a deep rut during a 5 mile long sand track.
Halfway through the “garden” the trail rose up an island rise and split. To the right, the path seemed to disappear off a steep rock ledge down to the dry creek bed eight feet below. To the left, the path down to the creek bed was more certain. Choosing certainty, I went left. The way down was easy, but what I couldn’t see from the island was a series of motorcycle-sized boulders stacked into a super technical step-up obstacle. Getting the light Huskey up and over was a challenge, and I stalled the engine a couple of times during the effort. I was pretty sure the GS wouldn’t to make it over that, even with the help of the Bixby Moto Scooter guys.
After the island, the tough section of the “Rock Garden” was over and the way down to Las Vegas looked easy by comparison. To be certain, I rode the Huskey another quarter-mile up the trail, partly to scout the trail, but mostly because it was fun, and I didn’t want to stop riding the agile machine.
On the walk back down to do it all over again, this time on the monster sized GS, I saw that the “right” path off of the island wasn’t a drop-off at all. Even better, the “right” path didn’t feature an ugly boulder step-up. Had I taken an extra minute to walk ahead I would have seen that the first time. But that wasn’t important now. It was time to ride the heavyweight into the rocky maw.
Taking a deep breath I focused on keeping my heart rate down as the 600lb, two-wheeled Bavarian tractor barked to life. Stacie set up behind to watch our line and Phil and Brody position themselves on either side to the rear of the bike and . Not so much to push the bike than to keep it upright should I begin to topple to the right or left. Some of the boulders were spaced just far enough apart that when the front and rear wheels spanned a gap, my feet would dangle off the pegs, with nowhere to plant them to support the weight of the motorcycle. A fall over these sections would most certainly land the bike upside-down, doing potentially irreparable damage.
In a series of repeated three-count grunting efforts, the four of us humped the hulking machine up the craggy escarpment covering three to six-foot intervals at a time. The effort seemed superhuman. Beyond the abilities of a single person and certainly outside the envelope of what the German engineers who dreamed up the machine must have ever intended. During a short break to catch our breaths, I noticed a small crowd of onlookers watching us do what was not meant to be done.
Cell phones snapped pictures and flash- bulbs popped as we ground our way forward as the rear tire spun-up over impossible granite step-ups. The big BMW’s exhaust pipes roared and the air thick with the smell of its clutch, burning deep within the bowels of the huge boxer motor.When we reached the “Right, Left Island,” a traffic jam had formed. A rider on a KTM 990 Adventure had gotten to the fork on the path and frozen up. His motor idled, and his hands we locked on the grips. his elbows were fused at the joint and his arms were straight as wooden poles. Resting my bike on its side-stand we scramble up to the paralyzed rider. When I told him that I had just been through this section and that the easy line was to the right, he didn’t even turn his head to acknowledge me. Riders in line back down the trail were beginning to shout obscenities, revving their engines in impatient protest. When I finally got the poor fellow to make eye contact I realized he was a lost cause. Within the cavity of his helmet his eyes wide with fear, frozen dead-open by the enormity of his situation. Phil, Brody and Stacie saw it too. If this was a war, this guy would get us all killed. Brody helped him push the KTM out-of-the-way so everyone could pass. What came of him, none of us know.
Back on the GS, our team began the final push through the crux of the trail. While the way to the right was ultimately easier than the left, the first few feet let little room to maneuver. The narrow ledge was only three-quarters as wide as my tire and slipping off would mean an eight foot, near vertical free-fall to the creek bed below. I hugged the left edge as hard as possible while my right foot dangled over the abyss to the right.
About 18 inches out onto the ledge, Stacie shouted for us to stop. Watching our progress from the creek bed ahead, she saw that my left cylinder crash guard was going to hit the rocks if we kept on that line. Had she not been watching the contact against the rocks would have undoubtedly tipped the bike to the into the wash. And even if I wasn’t crushed beneath it, the damage to the machine would have been catastrophic.A few more hard efforts and the big BMW was out of the “Rock Garden.” There was a sudden burst of applause from all around. The riders who had stopped to watch us make it through were still there cheering and giving high-fives and we headed back down to get the scooters through.
The last miles of the ride down the mountain were strange. As adrenalin waned from my circulatory system, my foot began to throb again. The joints in my hands and fingers were swollen and aching. Simply pulling in the clutch lever was an effort. After hitting the ground more times than I could remember and the physical effort exerted over the past two days, I was exhausted.
Slowly threading our way down the switchbacks in the last of the day’s light, we caught glimpses of the Las Vegas skyline through mountain pass ahead. Twilight relented to dusk, and dusk to evening. All at once we were transported from the remotest California and Nevada deserts to the absurd electrical excess of Las Vegas, NV.
As the warm, dry winter air evaporated the last sweat from my gear, and new aches and pains throbbed from the meat between my ribs, I knew I’d be back again next year. Whether I ride it again on my 600lb motorcycle remains to be seen, but I’m proud of the accomplishment and thankful to Stacie for deciding that we were doing LAB2V and thankful to Phil and Brody, for helping us make it through.
Jim Downs has had a passion for two wheeled travel since he was old enough to walk. Originally Born in cycling Mad Belgium and raised in Northern California, he developed an interest in exploring the world on two wheels.
Jim boasts three BMW motorcycles: a classic 1974 R75/6, the iconic 2000 K 1200RS and a mighty Triple Black '13 R1200 ADV – which he rides in search search of the ultimate adventure.
By trade Jim is a Television Producer, with credits producing professional bicycle racing telecasts for Universal Sports and numerous other television programs and videos. Today he documents and shares his adventures on two wheels with solo videography, photography and editorial at www.motostella.com.