by Doug Snyder
The two of us sat quietly on our motorcycles, smiling and nodding unspoken agreement that there was probably no other place on Earth we would rather be at that moment.
Although the sun was still out of sight, the few remaining clouds from last night's freak rainstorm were aflame in pastels, and the view looking east over the Mojave Desert from atop this gargantuan sand dune was truly magnificent. When the sun finally broke the horizon, and the others in our camp far below began to stir, Kurt and I headed back down the sand mountain for some coffee and breakfast.
This was mid-week of a seven-day motorcycle odyssey offered by Beach & Hyde, a thousand-mile, mostly off-pavement trek that meanders through the deserts and mountains of Southern California and Nevada, winding its way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
I saw the tour while surfing the Internet and daydreaming of warmer places than the Northeast last winter. Beach is a well known name in motorcycle touring circles; Raw-hide Adventures is a newer company, sponsoring Jeep tours in Southern California.
When Rob Beach and Jim Hyde got together, they hatched a plan to purchase a fleet of dual-sport (on and off-road) motorcycles and tour the out-of-the-way routes that Jim had laid out for his Jeeps.
The idea was to have high-quality dual-sport riding that was not tethered to a fixed base camp. Rather, at the end of each riding day, participants would spend the night at a self-contained, mobile campsite that traveled with the riding group and might be located, literally, in the middle of nowhere. Jim's "luxury camping" concept was unique to my experience, and he spared no expense in procuring top-shelf equipment and people qualified to use it.
For instance, the camp "chuck wagon" was a custom gourmet kitchen installed on the back of a brand-new Peterbuilt truck, staffed by a French-trained chef, Loretta. Bob, the driver, formerly owned a trucking company and could park the thing as if it were a mini-van.
Our guide, Kurt, was an expert desert rider with many years of experience riding and guiding in Baja California. He is also a fireman/paramedic, a fact that reassured me many times as we sped through the desert.
The staff had radios that let them stay in touch throughout the riding day, even though the riders and support staff might be many miles apart. These guys had their act together.
And the bikes. ATK is America's only manufacturer of off-road motorcycles, and the 2003 604 cc models we rode were the Cadillacs of the dirt world. High-quality suspension, big engines and road-legal lighting let us cruise at freeway speeds on the pavement sections, and still boogie down single-track trails and dirt roads like we were on dirt-only machines.
All the bikes were really fresh, with brand-new knobby tires. They even had electric starters - that magic button that can be a godsend at the end of a long riding day, or after you have tipped over and don't have the energy to use a kick-starter.
Day one took us about 115 miles from Jim Hyde's ranch in Castaic, California to Red Rock Canyon. Since we customers were all pretty grizzled riders, we were able to skip the usual half-day riding clinic and hit the trail. However, Jim can accommodate customers of all skill levels, as long as they have a motorcycle endorsement on their driver's license.
Traversing the Panamint Mountains, reaching 6,500 feet in a thick, cold fog, I was glad to be wearing a waterproof jacket and gloves, and long johns under my riding pants. The rains of the previous week kept the dust down, but I still wondered about riding 100 to 200 miles each day on dirt bikes, since 50 miles in the Pennsylvania rocks where I usually ride is a pretty long haul. But it was no problem to reach camp by dinner hour, where we drained some Coronas and Bass Ales as the sun set on the layered cliffs.
The next day's route was about 100 miles to Ballarat, a little ghost town on the desert plain. Perfect weather went well with our fresh-ground coffee and the second of many incredible breakfasts (I gained five pounds on this trip, even though we got plenty of exercise all week).
Highlights of the day included some single-track trail through the El Paso Mountains and a tour of the Trona Pinnacles, unearthly mineral spires reaching as high as 160 feet above a dry lake bed. A serpentine downhill section of the old Wells Fargo stagecoach route made us wonder how horse-drawn anythings made it on this path.
We finished with a crouched- down, flat-out ride on a smooth dirt road, straight as an arrow for several miles to our camp. Here, we celebrated the clarity of the desert air with some excellent California Cabernet (a '97, no less). Another gourmet dinner a la Loretta was followed by an early retirement.
Day three was big, with a 125-mile route planned from Ballarat to Furnace Creek in Death Valley, and an optional 80-mile afternoon ride through Titus Canyon in Nevada. After breakfast we headed out through Golar Wash, to the one-time hideout of the Charles Manson Family, where we stopped for a brief tour of the primitive bungalow.
The beautiful two-track Jeep trails were well preserved by the 25 mph speed limit in the area, and the "Tread Light-ly" style of motion practiced by off-roaders these days.
Crossing the Death Valley floor was hot, in the mid-80s in February, and I was glad not to be here in the summer, on foot. Near the end of the Valley, we viewed the Artists Palette, a gorgeous geologic display of various earth hues in a large pattern that resembles huge piles of oil paint.
Reaching Furnace Creek at about 3:30 p.m., a few of us diehards headed out again toward Titus Canyon after refueling and rehydrating (it really is a dry heat!). The dusty, stutter-bumped entry road into Titus, riding directly into a setting sun, was less than ideal, as I was at the back of a four-rider group (that means dust, by the way).
All that was soon forgotten, however, as I took the point just before the dust disappeared and the dirt road became a one-way path traversing one steep side of an amazingly beautiful canyon. After a few turns I fell into the tightly-focused rhythm that experienced riders call "the Zone," sliding smoothly around each corner and flying down each straightaway.
It was absolutely magical, and with no other traffic in the fading daylight, I seemed to have the whole place to myself. Before I knew it I was miles ahead of my co-riders, grinning like a fool, so I finally stopped to cool off and let Kurt catch up. "Well, I can see that you like fire roads," Kurt said. "I haven't seen anyone go down this road quite like that before!" That ride alone was worth the price of admission.
The fourth morning dawned California Blue, with Rob trying for the perfect photo of the sunrise on the cliffs behind Furnace Creek. An uphill run to Dante's View let us look 5,800 feet down to Badwater, the lowest point in the U.S. at 200 feet below sea level. The immensity of Death Valley became apparent from this point as we enjoyed the coolness of the high altitude.
We lunched at the China Ranch date farm, a neat oasis that grows 20 different species of date trees. Ben and Lou, my companions and experienced riders and racers, set a torrid pace as we splashed our way down a 12-mile wash leading to Dumont Dunes.
This public riding area features enormous piles of sand, hundreds of feet high, connected in some very organic shapes. It is very strange and challenging stuff to ride on with a two-wheeled vehicle - more like surfing or skiing than motorcycle riding.
We played "follow the leader" (Kurt) for a while to practice his dune-riding tips, and then he turned us loose in the sand. We had so much fun that I had to refuel twice on the first day at Dumont, even with the ATK's 100-mile range. There was just something about blasting up the 45- degree slope of a 300-foot-tall sand mound, using every bit of a motorcycle's 50 horsepower, that made it hard to stop.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. The final three riding days were more great dirt roads, gourmet food, incredible desert and mountain vistas and February weather in the 60s and 70s, with some gold mines, snow-capped peaks and casinos thrown in, too. Wow - lots nicer than the freezing temperatures, two-foot snowfall and ice-covered roadways that welcomed me home to Pennsylvania.
A trip to remember, or maybe even repeat.
For details, check out the Beach's Motorcycle Adventures, Ltd. Website:www.bmca.com. Rob Beach can be reached by phone at 716-773-4960, fax at 716-773-5227, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jim Hyde's phone is 213-713-5652 or e-mail him at email@example.com.
The tour costs $2,995, including accommodations, rental bike, fuel, food, drinks, and an airport shuttle from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Airfare is extra. Another tour, called California Extreme, is available during the warmer season, using a different route to avoid desert heat.