Two Wheeled Nomad: Killing it in Death Valley

For sure, I read all the amusing Burma Shave advertisements from decades past—popping up on the roadside every few hundred yards, in between several pit stops on the Mother Road that is Route 66. Scanning the sanguine slogans: “If you want a hearty squeeze, get our female anti-freeze”, “Pedro walked back home, by golly his bristly chin was hot-to-Molly” and the finale for me—Don’t lose your head to gain a minute, you need your head your brains are in it”, kept me riding miles of smiles.

Nipping into Nevada, Las Vegas saw the start of things to come: feasting until I was full as a tick on a hound dog. Accompanying our new crew—a four man-strong seasoned expedition team in the business of overlanding and mapping unexplored areas, the irony of losing our whereabouts inside the park’s 3,000 square miles wasn’t altogether lost on me. Still, Jason and I would be riding alongside two fully featured and breathtakingly equipped 4x4s. Despite the vultures searching for carrion overhead, plunging into Death Valley alongside what felt like our personal support team for five days, gave me the confidence needed to get out there and kill it.

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Venturing into the national park from the south—the hottest, driest and lowest land in North America, which straddles Nevada and California east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains—we wended our way towards Shoshone, a town in Inyo County. Impassable washes immediately prevented us from taking the faster route deeper into the interior, where diverting onto an off road route had ill-prepared me for just how soon I would need to jolt my muscle memory.

Let’s just take it easy on this road surface lottery; stabilising with a little gas is one thing but crashing in the thick, loose gravel is going to smart a lot less at my preferred snail’s pace, than 35 miles per hour even. When contested on the point, Jason replied in a tone of willing but almost wearied patience. Like a teacher facing his ten thousandth unpromising student, it must have felt like trying to knock down a concrete wall with his head. I’m exhausting, I know.

“Please Lisa, just promise me you’ll stay in second gear once we head down this trail and give it the tiniest amount to stay positive when it feels twitchy,” he pleaded. Knowing he was referring to both the gas as much as my temperament didn’t take a lot to unravel. “Basically, you just need to suck it up, I can’t ride your bike for you,” was his pragmatic conclusion. Looking back, I think it’s the reason you never hear the phrase ‘male intuition’.

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Impulsive thoughts veered my mind into strange territory: sneaky paddling or stealth walking my motorcycle came at me with speed and brawn. Outmaneuvering and muscling out all other ideas, corralling me into a desperate corner. But because the resultant outcome would royally slow us all down, to the point of stifling the expedition, such ideas lacked stamina and withered into a flimsy flirtation.

Off the map, my mind wandered into no man’s land—miles away from my muscle memory. I’d run out of mental highway, the black dog of despair biting at my heels. Fear steadily colonised my body so I dug a cave inside my head and hid inside. Coaxed out and heartened however by Scott’s reinforced offer of riding my motorcycle over the technical sections. It was the stone rolling back from the cave I needed to galvanize me into ‘Can do’ mode and spurred me on.

Pearl, we’re up! But not you sweetie, you’re going down. While Scott, the expedition leader strongly recommended that we air down, reducing our tyre pressures was something Jason had only paid mind to momentarily. Honestly, he hadn’t wanted to invite a pinch flat caused by the inner tube getting “pinched” between the tyre and rim, out in the middle of nowhere. Particularly when water is always in limited supply on two wheels. Nor did Jason really believe it would make a significant difference in traction. Mmn, it made the world of difference.

There are some bikes you come to trust implicitly. Pearl (my F650GS) is that kind of bike—a pathfinder not afraid of cracking. She had long learned to dance the dance, she just needed a half-decent partner. Her dancing is something to see. And her sense of timing never misses a beat. Her hips sway with a voluptuous certainty more graceful than clumsy, and her wheels cut their own brisk, surprising pattern through the tracks and washes.

After day one of the expedition, I knew categorically, more by feel and sixth sense than by appearance, Pearl imparted to the sandy gravel itself a sense of sureness and a generosity of spirit. She exuded poise as much as purpose that took me in, urging to keep her steady on the twisting trails. She told me just by the touch of her handlebar grips and reassuring body to which my knees assertively squeezed. Despite fishtailing, we weren’t squirming. Instead, the pair of us sewed our way around the hem of a rah-rah skirt of a route through Death Valley, without fraying any nerves.

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If you have been in its presence on two wheels then you know how anything loose commands your respect. Trembling with fatigue or something a lot more human, thank goodness for adrenaline I thought. And Larry, who seamlessly replenished my hydration levels while plying me with calorific energy bars. Nutritiously delicious, if they’re good enough for the prized horses and dogs on his ranch, they’re good enough for me.

While the landscape is mostly bereft of plants and its climate severely lacks precipitation, Death Valley still displays incredible biodiversity. Wild burros, red-tailed hawks and bighorn sheep can all be spotted without too much squinting into the distance; there are lizards scurrying all over; myriad birdlife and hundreds of springs and pools magnetizing the wildlife. Not to mention areas home to forests of cottonwoods, willows and Joshua trees. Moreover, when conditions are smack dab perfect, Goldilocks’ ‘just right’ no less, optimal rainfall combined with water from the regular snowmelt, contribute towards a once-in-a-decade super-bloom.

The odds of us witnessing such wonderment when the last one was reported to have occurred 11 years ago by the Los Angeles Times, wasn’t wasted on me. When the earth warms slowly enough to meet the seed’s criteria in sprouting from deeply watered soil, coupled with a moist, El Niño weather pattern supplying a lifeline to the wild flowers, Death Valley becomes carpeted in magnificent meadows. Beavertail cacti and Mojave Aster to name a couple magically spring to life. Or so we’d heard.

But lo!—our timely arrival saw the tail end of Globemallow, a smattering of pretty reddish orange patches over the ground, far greener than expected. The warm breeze fanned the Desert Gold flowers until they waved like a blanket of gold. Implausibly that afternoon, Death Valley’s sparse backyard looked ripe with nascent possibilities. If the future was a nation, this would be its flag: a blooming meadow amid a landscape of green. The rare floral phenomenon in such a deep, arid desert basin, where the valley’s native plants had somehow managed to explode by the field load, blew my mind to bits in the process.

Having wove our way past Pahrump and onto Green Water Valley Road via dirt tracks and stony trails, we made camp. Clusters of dust from the desert erupted in a fine spray that pirouetted around us as we sat watching the sun melt into the mountains. Bright and early the following morning saw us back on the bitumen for a brief resupply at Furnace Creek; the spot in possession of the world’s hottest record at 134 degrees (dating back to 1913).

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Wheels singing to a song of an off road route, a 4,000 feet climb to more bearable temperatures and a long, straight series of sharp gravelly dips led us to Panamint Butte, on a spur road off Panamint Springs. Battered by the elements and in need of a little polish, an old Cadillac sat adjacent to an old classic roof topped vehicle, just as clapped out and corroded. Even the cars succumb to the Death Valley’s unforgiving nature. In the very dreamy and earthly locale in which I now found myself, I perched on the wing of the sandblasted Cadillac before easing myself into its interior filled with rusting springs, jagged edges and sand.

As I lay on the moon-whitened desert floor, I paused to shine my dying beam of flashlight on whatever the dark couldn’t gobble up. In every direction, the sere landscape stretched out featurelessly and farther than the eye could see. Tired, I sank like a stone into sleep.

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The first pale fingers of light pried open my eyes. I awoke to the sight of a pink dawn washing over the cars, our camp, rock and desert. Post a dip into Salt Creek, a mile-long depression in the heart of the valley that supports pupfish, the morning saw us descend upon Badwater Basin. A dry lakebed next to a spring-fed pool of salts from the neighbouring basin, giving rise to the name and leaving the water far from potable. Standing at the lowest point in North America, we had plummeted 282 feet below sea level.

A moment where we just stopped and put down the cameras. Looking up into the snowy mountains standing guard in the day’s searing heat, we absorbed our surroundings—pleased and perspiring in over 100 degrees—and mouthed “Wow”. Perhaps the last place I stood that completely bowled me over.

Heading north, we pressed on past Beatty Junction and Stove Pipe Wells aiming for Death Valley’s hot springs, a closer encounter with the iconic sand dunes and Lippincott Mine Road leading to Racetrack Valley, only to come to an abrupt halt. Rudely interrupting a wilderness of fun, Jason’s moto took a turn for the worse. The stator’s waning ability to charge the motorcycle battery left much and more to be desired. But aside from periodically riding my bike back to meet his, whose connecting leads transferred power into the engine and took some of the horsepower out of Jason’s frustration, there wasn’t much I could do.

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With the support of our two chase trucks, the team deposited us safely back into civilization at Lone Pine where the washing machine, hot water and a fresh change of clothes became my new objects of desire. For us, the remainder of the expedition would have to wait; Death Valley had claimed Jason’s stator but at least we’d live to die another day. I guess that was the way of it: the Pearl riders roll on, the vultures keep circling and it’s imperative that venturing deep into Death Valley isn’t to be taken lightly.


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British born and location independent, Four Wheeled Nomad is Lisa Morris and Jason Spafford. Remote wilderness exploration is the couple’s driving force, enabling their skillset as content creators. Previously, they co-ran scuba diving trips. Having hung up the fins, they motorcycled the Americas—an almost five-year, 80,000-mile jaunt taking in Antarctica to the Arctic. Jason is a photographer who dabbles in filmmaking. His internationally published portfolio is layered in two decades of adventure travel, landscape, and commercial, and his beautiful captures can be found on Instagram. Lisa freelances for publications worldwide in the hopes of inspiring people to consider their relationship with nature. Currently, a photographic expedition sees them in a Toyota Hilux, roaming Nordic countries and beyond as borders reopen.