It’s a funny juxtaposition, landing in Las Vegas to head out to Death Valley. The land of excess butted up next to nothing. Yet, somehow it seems fitting.
The Subaru Death Valley Adventure starts here. Who are we? And what are we doing here in this wasteland? But it really isn’t like that.
Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Tiller
We ended up calling John "Radavist" Watson our de facto leader, but that’s because he knows so damn much about the desert that we were heading into. It's something that we talked about in the car when he wasn't there. It's something that we joked about in front of him as he explained the mules trekking across the land or how the rocks move across the desert aided only by the wind.
Building bikes can be a pain. But when you’ve got a stash of homemade salsa, some freshly ground hummus, and a few pals, the task tends to fly by. Especially when your cohorts have no problem not only thwarting your progress with a few good-natured pokes in the ribs, but actually thwarting your progress by showing off their bikes and stealing your tools.
The bike selections were also one of the big questions of the trip. Countless emails and a flurry of texts had gone out in the weeks before, trying to suss out what everyone would be riding, what we would need to have to complete the trek. If we were going by only what John Watson recommended, the bigger, the fatter, the heavier, the tougher, the better. You never know what you’re going to get in the desert.
Which is why there were vastly differing options ridden out there. Julie had a full-on Trek race bike. All carbon, all the time. It was a 29er and it had race tires on it (we did set them up tubeless) and it did nothing but reinvigorate her idea of what it means to have a hardtail mountain bike again. (Seriously, if the trip was good for this one point alone, I’m OK with that.)
Myself? I went with the Ritchey Commando. This would be only my second foray into the world of fat bike riding and this time I was more than thankful for it. Don’t tell my doc I was out riding in the desert on a fractured femur. The extra plush of the fat tires helped. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
Plus, it was sort of an olive-drab green in color. Apparently this is an important detail when it comes to gearing up for anything in the desert. I know this mostly from perusing John Watson’s kit for the week. “When I’m out here is the only time I’m not wearing all black. It just works better out here with the landscape.” Too true, too true.
The drive out to our campsite was a glorious test of the capabilities of the Crosstrek. Being a Subaru owner (humble brag) I thought that I was accustomed to how these would handle off-road. Clearly I was wrong, or clearly I have not taken my rig (an Outback) on roads deemed “rough.” Hot damn, there is nothing like driving through Death Valley. You think for a moment that you’re really out there, and then you round a bend and all you can see is the vast expanse.
But there we were, cruising through a totally open landscape with our gear all around us. It solidified the thought that this was actually some sort of lunar landing and we were in spaceships rocketing across the landscape. The feeling was only intensified by the gear filling the back seats and mercilessly tacked onto the vehicle. So much gear, and all of it strapped neatly into place in our little light-blue moon rover.
Side Note: We went for this color for its cooling ability in the desert sun, a fact we made up upon spotting the car waiting for us at the airport.
Above Photo by Dylan VanWeelden
Thankfully, no one else in our car was keen on driving, so I got to hog the dusty duties myself. Dylan was strapped in the back snapping photos with Gabe. Julie was marveling at the landscape. This was our first time in Death Valley, after all, and the continually changing landscape was a treat, to say the least.
Gabe also provided a much-needed soundtrack to the entire situation. His phone was plugged in with a mix called up that could only be described as Tarantino Meets the Desert Sea. No idea what that means, but it all works, and the kicked-up dust completed the picture—a picture painted with sandy brushes made from tumbleweed.
Death Valley on Spotify
Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Tiller
Just as we were rolling in to camp, the sun fully dipped behind the cliffs immediately to our right. John pointed along the ridgeline and cautioned us that tomorrow morning would be a strenuous climb, right out of the gate.
No one really seemed to mind, or even register his warning, as piping hot bowls of curry had been ladled out for us, and, simultaneously, the rainflies of our tents looked as though they were emulating our yawns.
But it was not to be just yet. No trip to the outdoors would be complete without the tradition of sitting around an open fire and poking each other in the ribs with tall tales, horror stories, and a few “dad jokes,” at which John seemed to be unusually adept.
"What did the surfing bat say about those fresh waves?"
“Soooo gnar.” Get it? Sonar? Never mind.
The darkness there in the desert was a complete darkness. The flicker of the fire hid that fact rather well, but stepping away from the fire's minuscule sanctuary, it was an overpowering fact. The darkness was a velvety blanket (minus the warmth that might come from a blanket of this ilk) draped over everything, and more than one person commented on it as we sat there.
In the middle of the night, I could no longer fight the fact that I had to pee.
We’d been warned again and again that this is one of the driest places on earth and our liquid intake should be upped to compensate. But that meant that we were going to have to urinate in the middle of the night. Which in turn meant unzipping myself from the warm cocoon that was my borrowed (extra desert chill ready) sleeping bag.
When I stepped out of the tent and scrambled over a pile of rocks, I noticed something that wasn’t there before. The moon. And, oh, how glorious that orb shined in the sky. Apparently we had gone to bed before it had risen and now the landscape was lit in an entirely different and incredibly eerie way. Every cactus and rock pile seemed to be swaying in the moonlight in a dance that I seemed to be emulating. A bright white bath of light covered everything and made it possible to see without the aid of additional light.
Then I realized I was freezing, and dove headfirst back into the darkened maw of my tent.
Part Two: The Ride
The morning was glorious out there. And when I say glorious I mean abso-friggin-lutely glorious. There were young coyote pups yipping off in the distance. Expecting our arrival? Surely. There was also a bright moment when the sun lolled over them thar hills and sent us all scrambling for our sunglasses. It was epic, to say the least.
Photo by Dylan VanWeelden
The food and coffee? DIALED. Now, I mostly know this from the next morning—that’s when we took a vote and had a leisurely breakfast. There were pancakes. So many pancakes. And some of them were savory pancakes with thick chunks of bacon and cheese in them. But again, that was in the future.
The first morning, we were scarfing down what we shall call “scared calories.” I say that because John had done his best to put the fear of god in us. This was going to be the hardest ride we would ever do in our lives. We would ride, we would hike, we would scramble for our lives away from any manner of terror that could find us out in the desert. Or in our case, none.
We did, however, have one fact that would be chasing us the entirety of the ride. Daylight. It can be a killer out there. Especially if you’re afraid of the dark like I am (nah, just kidding, but I legit don’t like being cold). That fact alone was enough to finally push us out the proverbial door and up the first climb of the day.
We needed to get over the mountain in front of us. It went up, sure, but it also went down the other side, and that was pretty fun. As cyclists, we know how these things work.
The front side of this climb was relatively uneventful. Sure, there were some cool vistas on the way up. However, most of the climb was spent (at least by me) looking at my handlebars and marveling at how much sweat can be produced in such little time.
It gave me a little time to think about who this cast of characters were and why they were there. Or at least why I thought they were there. I actually cannot imagine a cooler group of women. The fact that the men were outnumbered, outgunned, was not lost on me. So we mostly tried to keep to ourselves in the back and not bother anyone. LOL. I was HURTING. Thanks to Cait for keeping me company on a couple of those long climbs. You can tell that I’m hurting by how much I try to talk to other people, my thought there being that if I can hold someone back with my storytelling abilities they will never leave me. Don’t leave me.
We stopped for a short break at the top of the first climb. Just to confirm, we had actually made it to the top and not some false-flat business that tends to happen on these rides. It was indeed the top and it was time to pull out those light jackets that everyone had stressed about bringing along.
That’s the thing about the desert, right? (Now would you just look at me being an expert about all things in the wild?) We knew that the temps would fluctuate, just as we knew those ups would have downs, but this much? We were climbing and freezing, and then we were climbing and boiling our brains out. Then we were standing there and we were just fine, but maybe we were a little cold. Then, someone asks the question on all our minds…”Are we going down a bit more?” Which really means “we’re not climbing anytime soon are we?”
John laughed at that comment. “Yeah, we’re going down some more. Like 20 miles down.” But really down? We asked because, again, we’ve all done rides like this before and sometimes the descents are punctuated with some ups. “Yeah, really down.”
"I learned more from three Dead songs than from four years of college." Bo said this to no one in particular and it caused a ripple of laughter to run through the group.
And then we all started hooting and hollering like a bunch of over excited owls. The fat bike, as it turns out, is long and extended, and positively glorious on rough, washed-out, sandy descents. “I could get into riding one of these,” I thought to myself, though no one would have heard me anyway—they are all tearing away at breakneck speed. I will always remember what one of our fellow riders, Emily Kachorek, said to me as we were riding out the long, timed section at Grinduro a few years back. I questioned why she wasn’t all-out going for it to achieve one of the faster times. “I’ve been hurt doing stupid stuff over the years. I’m just here for the fun.” Simple, but it's a mantra that stuck with me since then, and one that came rushing back to me as the sandy dust sprayed into my face.
We rounded the corner and ran into a fully loaded Subaru Impreza. Wait, is this a plant? The driver assured us that it was not, that he’s just passing through, all loaded down with snowboards and bags and no less than five passengers. How did they all fit in there?
John gave his customary “Ye shall be warned” speech and sent them on their way. “Watch out for the black ice,” we shouted and gave a friendly wave. They waved back and their car lurched up the mountain we were coming down.
Soon enough, we were passing fields in Joshua Tree that looked like they’d been planted in neat rows. They had all sprung up out of the desert floor in a way that resembled some sort of spine-filled congregation, all hands up and giving thanks to the sun god raining her fiery rays down upon them.
There was a blue pail next to the track when we stopped again. Inside was a pair of water jugs slowly thawing from the previous night's cold. “What are those for?” someone asked no one in particular. “Good Samaritan water supply.” This time it’s Moi who answers, and we get the impression that maybe he's utilized something like this in the past. From his moto days?
The wind blew its own answer through the group, and we all shifted our packs from side to side—adjusting, and simultaneously checking to see what our own hydration supplies felt like. The blue bucket is about as far out as you could imagine being in this landscape. These are the valleys that old spaghetti westerns were meant to look like. They aren’t the actual places they were filmed. Well, OK, maybe a few of them. But this far out??
“We’re losing daylight here, folks.”
And that’s all we needed to hear to continue with our descent.
The next stop, a few miles later, was a right turn onto what looked to be the straightest road anyone had ever seen. For some reason we were missing one, and when Moi finally rode up, he had what could only be described as a forlorn look on his face. Sad might be another way of putting it. “I’m losing my lunch burrito,” he calmly stated as he proceeded to pull a fancy New York City-style “deconstructed” burrito from his frame pack. We all laugh and take photos as he jammed leaves of green and chunks of salad into his mouth one at time.
The next part was another one of the hard climbs about which we had been warned. We may have rolled our eyes at the continual reminder, but let’s just go ahead and say it: confirmed.
Think of the toughest off-camber that you’ve got on your local mountain bike trail. Then toss a handful of watermelon-sized rocks out there on it. Plus, maybe a few that are closer in circumference to a Weber grill. And a couple the size of a car. Then, make the whole thing pitch upwards. Like, up up. Not just a hill-sized hill, but something like 18 to 20 percent—you know, for good measure. Then, add a few hyperfit athletes (looking at you, Kachorek, Schaper, and, of course, Bo) and you’ve got yourself a “fun” little climb ahead of you.
Photos by Gabriel Amadeus Tiller
We did stop on this climb to eat some food and recover from the first half. As soon as we stopped at the Death Valley Sign and Gabe pulled out a 3-pound bag of gummy worms, it was over. Snacks came out and butts were planted on any boulder that we could manage. “Throw me some worms, yo.”
There wasn’t much more to this climb. I can say that now, because in actuality there was a lot more to that climb. Memory has a funny way of shortening hard things. A few more narrow bends, and more steep. Much more steep. My wife swapped bikes with me for a few of the sections that we were forced to “portage” (do you still call it that when the river is actually a steep sandy trail?). She’s nice like that, and to my injured leg it was much appreciated.
When we got to the top of the canyon a decision was to be made. And it involved Brooke and me getting into the back of a car and stuffing our faces with Sun Chips. They still make Sun Chips?
Her bike was malfunctioning and so was my leg. We raced back to camp to pick up cars and warm clothing for everyone else. There was no way that this ride was going to finish anywhere but in complete darkness. Which is cool except for the fact that we took too much time taking pretty pictures to complete the ride in any sort of timely fashion.
When we started back toward camp it was obvious that I had made the right decision. The riders were all glued to the far right-hand side of the road—all but a thin, inches-wide strip of it was the worst washboard you’ve ever seen. Not bike washboard either. Car-sized washboard, and it was bouncing the riders around on their bikes. As we passed them we could see the concentration on their faces.
A quick swap was made back at camp and then I found myself alone in one of the cars, churning up sand and gravel and dust and anything else that might be found out in the middle of nowhere. The car felt different without bikes hanging from its racks, and the track itself seemed directional in the sense that the washboards we had driven up on our way in were somehow slanted the other way and no longer a problem. Yes, please.
Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Tiller
When turning upon the last stretch of road before Teakettle Junction, the riders appeared to be coming up out of the mist. Or dust—could have been either at this point. With the dropping temperatures and the quickly fading sun, the looks on the riders' faces was one of slight concern, but also relief. Would they do the next couple hours in the dark? Surely. But, would they enjoy it? Well, that’s not the point.
The darkness took over at some point. It was inevitable. They say that a good way to reset your sleep cycle is to go camping. Well, I’ll add that going camping in Death Valley is an even better way to hit that reset button. When the clock finally hits 7:30 pm and it feels like midnight, your body does more telling than asking for you to hit the hay.
Tired faces ringed the campfire this time and jokes were limited to stories from the day we had just completed. What was the name of that first canyon we passed through? How many times have you actually been out here, John? And where actually did you get that blue blow-up alien?
This night proved to be a good sleep for everyone. Hot water was poured into individual bottles and stashed at the bottom of everyone's sleeping bags. Who thought that up and how can we kiss their beautiful faces right this moment?
“Who wants pancakes?” It didn't take much more than that to rustle us from our sleeping bags. Our warm sleeping bags with lukewarm water bottles in them. I’m reminded of the trick that Bo mentioned yesterday when I thanked him for the warm bottle. “Drink it in the morning. Don’t waste that water. Plus, it’s not freezing cold so it won’t chill your core.” It’s the simple things right? They make the most sense and yet we often overlook them. Deep, I know.
“There is a savory pancake option on the table.” A what?
Photo by Dylan VanWeelden
Dirty Gourmet blew our brain pieces apart a few times out there in the desert. Sure, I know what you’re thinking. When you’re tired and hungry and have been bouncing along across a desert landscape for hours, you’ll eat anything, right? Well, sure, but we didn’t have to—we had a friggin' S’mores bar. That’s what I’m talking about—peanut butter on your marshmallow chocolate concoction. That will blow your mind clean apart, trust me.
But, they did it again every single meal. Wraps for the ride? Sure, Moi had some troubles, but that wasn’t their problem. Curry? How about a gluten-free option? These people are driving Subaru vehicles in the desert, call from the mountaintops that we’re going to need a gluten-free option! Do it! (I’m allergic to a million things—not gluten—so I don’t have much room to talk.) But having options while you’re out there is almost unheard of. This crew did it right!
But, let’s not forget where we were going here...Gabe’s stack of pancakes. This was before the remote control cars were broken out. Before people had pushed for their third cup of joe. Before the packing up and heading home had really begun. That stack of pancakes was out of control, and each and every one of them delicious. Here, for you:
Cheddar & Bacon Pancakes from Dirty Gourmet
It seems that the desert sand has a way of clearing your mind. It blows in your eyes and ears and up your nose. You’ll come back from a trip to Death Valley and find those little grains everywhere. But when you’re out there it has a beautiful way of smoothing everything out. Like taking the wrinkles out of your favorite T-shirt so that you don’t feel bad wearing it for the third day in a row. That’s what the desert will do to you and did to us on this trip. We came back with sun-bleached smiles and a new appreciation for this not-so-hidden spot that our friend John has been talking about for years.
I almost felt bad for leaving a fine dust of it coating the bike that we sent directly back to the kind folks over at Ritchey. But then I figured, maybe they could use a little bit of this brain dust themselves.
You can find Gabe's photos » HERE.
The story on The Radavist » HERE.
Made in Partnership with Subaru
Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Tiller