My happy little trip to ride bikes on lightly traveled roads and to commune with the hermits of yore in the silence of the Death Valley desert is completely ruined. The last few days of December is one of the busiest times here and the campgrounds are full, while automobiles (bumper to bumper at times) crowd the roads on the way to must see tourist attractions; Badwater, Artist Drive, Golden Canyon and so forth. My expectations arise from my visit here in February a few years ago, when the campgrounds and roads were more or less deserted. Your high, unrealistic expectations- not the crowds- led to your disappointment, grasshopper.
Panamint Springs Resort at the north end of Panamint Valley is as I remember it though…quiet, inexpensive campground, showers and a restaurant with a fantastic selection of beers (160 or 180 different beers depending on which sign you read…..many/several, at any rate). A gallon of gas here is only about a dollar less than a campsite! There is no phone service and only a sketchy internet connection, actually- none during our stay. This turns out to be OK for our purposes!
Even better, the Panamint Valley Road towards Trona is closed due to damage from flash flooding earlier in the year. We ride around the barricades and continue through the desert for 15 miles to the junction with Trona Wildrose Road, which is also closed with barricades. We head back to Panamint Springs Resort stopping along the way to eat some corn tortillas with summer sausage and cheese and to listen to the quiet. Even in this total stillness, it is not completely quiet;
We hear the blood pumping in our veins
And the synapses firing in our brains
There is a “ringing” in our ears.
The wind can be a factor here as we discovered in the last five or six miles, which took probably an hour for us to cover. But that only made the beer and burgers at the restaurant at Panamint Springs taste even better. Did I mention they have 160-180 different beers?
Sunday morning we pack up the bikes for an over-nighter and we sail, with the wind aft and with the sheets eased out,
towards Trona, but this time we hang a left at the junction and start the climb to Wildrose Campground. From here the road slopes up at an average of about 6 degrees; 3000 feet in nine miles. The wind shifts until it is blowing off the snow fields on the slopes of 11000′ Telescope Peak directly into our face. Oh yeah, and in the last few miles the road surface varies from broken asphalt to dirt, to loose, deep gravel through which we are obliged to dismount and push the bikes. Mentally tough ride, this. Once we reach the campground we strip down and rinse off the sweat before the sun is blocked by the western ridge and the temperature drops. We take a hike and scavenge pieces of wood from broken pallets which are left over from a metal roofing project on the park service buildings. Once we burn through that we are driven into our tents by the wind which now feels as though it originated in Antarctica. I have camped in lower ambient temperatures (our water bottles don’t even have ice in them in the morning) but the wind chill is brutal.
The aforementioned roofing project has apparently been abandoned for some time. It appears that the new roofs are complete but half full pallets of material are still laying around and one pallet has fallen or was blown off the edge of the bank adjacent to the building and pieces of roofing are fanned out across the driveway. Empty pallets litter the area. I mentioned the fact that area roads have been closed due to flash flooding. We were told these floods happened in June and it is now the end of December. The only apparent work that has been done on the road inside Death Valley National Park is the placement of some traffic cones along the edges of the most severe drop-offs. In October of 2013 we were in Baker, NV one of the main entrances to Great Basin National Park. The park had just reopened after being closed for two weeks due to the government shutdown. The town of Baker and the businesses there were all but deserted.
In other news: The US military is proceeding with the production of the F-35 fighter jet which is seven years behind schedule and hideously over budget. Vanity Fair wrote about that in September 2013. Congressional representatives in almost every state have 1400 good reasons to love this project; that’s the number of sub-contractors providing 133,00 jobs in 45 states. Miraculously, the government shutdown and sequestration has not affected those jobs or the funding for this project.
Developing and building a new fighter jet is fine, I happen to think fighter jets are one of humanity’s coolest inventions. But if the idea is sort of a neo-New Deal, then I wonder if there might be a better way to spend the money and put people to work. Things such as, say, maintaining national parks, or bridges, or building schools, or even making bike paths. Maybe National Parks can be considered a superfluous luxury in a society but on the other hand they might be considered a mine canary which, when it begins to wobble a little as it can now be seen doing, signals a declining quality of livability.
By daylight on Monday morning the wind has moved on. The shining blue sky sun quickly warms us to the point we can take off layers. We are in shorts and shirtsleeves by the time we mount the bikes for the ride back…..the same section of road which took 2 1/2 hours to climb yesterday we now cover in 50 minutes. Back at the campground before we left we spoke to a couple vacationing from Minnesota. I think Minnesotans have some weird need to prove that the extreme cold is not problematic. They told us stories of ice fishing and camping on the ice in wall tents heated with wood stoves when outside the temperature is minus 40. Since nobody wants to get up when it’s that cold in order to stoke the fire it drops to maybe minus 20 in the tent by morning. I’ll pass on that adventure.
A fighter jet from Edwards Air Force Base makes Panamint Valley its own personal half pipe as it caroms down the valley a few hundred feet off the deck. I wonder out loud if it’s too late for me to become a fighter pilot. The remaining eighteen miles back to Panamint Springs is basically flat. The temperature is in the mid 60’s, the sun hangs in the boundless blue sky and the wind, such a bully yesterday, is feeble. Back at Panamint Springs the shower rooms are pretty basic but functional and clean. The stout metal framed screen door to the men’s room doesn’t even latch. For some reason this makes me happy. Paradoxically, it makes it feel safe and it’s comforting to know it never gets very cold here.
Dinner again at Panamint Springs Resort where they boast a great selection of beer.
Tuesday we decide to just explore the area on bikes with no firm agenda. In the morning we ride a mile or so up Highway 190 and take a left onto a dirt road towards Darwin Falls. In the PM we go back east on Highway 190 and turn on an unmarked road and ride another several miles across the playa towards Panamint Dunes. There are two or three groups of people camping out here even though there are no apparent designated camping sites. I wonder if there are permits issued by the Park Service for camping out here or if the people are just poaching. It doesn’t look very pleasant at any rate since it gets dark at 6PM and I’m pretty sure they are not supposed to build fires.
So, that’s it. On Wednesday we pack up the car and start for home. It’s sort of sad to be leaving but it’s been over a week since we left and it will be good to get back. Overall the trip was a great success. We got some nice riding in and were able to sleep under the stars in this “Gold Tier” International Dark Sky Park. Now I know that late December is not the best time to visit if one seeks quiet, but the Bike Hermit only had words with two different parties, so all’s well that ends well….and Panamint Springs Resort has a good beer selection.