Las Vegas Nevada. The city designed to attract people to the middle of nowhere. Bright lights, nonstop 24 hour entertainment. Eating, drinking, gambling, showing off, and frolicking. Tens of thousands of people visiting every day, attracted to the spectacle. People have two cell phones, one for each ear. The high life, the midlife crisis, and the lowlife, are all here. It is simultaneously a triumph of man over his environment, and some would argue, a lowpoint. A Lamborghini looks rather commonplace, and motorcycles lean toward the fragile and impractical good-for-10-miles-or-less, supermodel-included, you-are-compelled-to-look-at-me variety. They say you can buy anything in Las Vegas, and I for one do not doubt it.
Death Valley California. A place designed to repel people by way of its very name. And if not the name, then the folklore, and legend, and desolation. No lights, no entertainment. Nothing to eat, nothing to drink. Tens of thousands of desert scrub brushes. There is no cell service. There is wildlife. Jeeps and sturdy reliable motorcycles are commonplace. You can’t buy anything.
Ironically, the two places are not far from each other. Having had my fill of Las Vegas, (it did not take long) I headed west on a BMW R1200RT, in search of the place with the foreboding name. Getting there this fun, at least for an easterner. You travel through a combination of foothills and a larger mountain, followed by arrow straight roads, and then more twisty foothills. To add to the irony, I was not dressed for the very cold temperatures at elevation early in the morning. After all, I left Las Vegas in the desert and was heading to another desert which records the hottest temperatures on the continent. Cold and hungry, I eventually pulled into Shoshone, CA where I had been advised to gas up as there was no fuel for a long time afterward.
Shoshone is home of the famous Crowbar Saloon which was built in the 1930s and still operates today. I was quickly ensconced in the cafe part of the establishment drinking coffee and eating eggs. Warmed up, fueled up, and fortified, I headed off into Death Valley National Park. The park sees very little rain, and record high temperatures, which contributes to its reputation. Much of the park is also below sea level. In fact, I visited Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Despite all of this, death Valley actually has a surprising diversity of life. Salty marshes contain small fish, small wild flowers bloom along the roadside, arachnids (saw some of these), lizards (saw one of these), and coyotes (did not see any of these) roam the park, and there are plenty of plants found nowhere else. The native Timbisha Shoshone called the area Tumpisa, meaning rock paint after the clay from the area that they used to make red paint. They have lived in the area for hundreds of years. I am sure that they were mystified by a few lost pioneers in the 1860s deciding to call it Death Valley.
That said, there is no question that the arid vistas are the main attraction. There are acres of small rocks leading up to very big rocks. White salt plains leading to a salt marsh. Small trees and shrubs grow out of what look like pure gravel and rocks. Sun bleached driftwood such as you would find on a beach is lying around. Roads disappear into shimmering waves of heat. In some instances there is the appearance of an abandoned mining area, where the excavation has removed all of the soil and left crushed rocks and white residue. You might also imagine this to be a mountaintop somewhere above the treeline. But the altimeter reads a negative number, not a large positive one. I stopped several times just to absorb how desolate it was, and to marvel at how life finds a way to persist in even the harshest of places. Fascinating.
Oh and by the way, the riding was pretty good as well. There was no traffic for long periods of time, and even then it would be one car or another motorcycle. I traveled on through beautiful majestic sweepers followed by right angle curves that opened up to yet new amazing vistas. Long straight stretches of road would have allowed for generous throttle rotation, but I did just the opposite, slowing down to take in monochromatic landscapes or to savor the journey.
However, the park is not just some desolate landscape. It has plenty of interesting and diverse areas throughout. They include the Devils golf course which is an area full of small rock spires. They also include Dantes view and Zabriskie point which are two places to view wonderful vistas of multicolored rock formations from high points within the park. I did not visit any, but there are also several abandoned gold mines. What i did visit was the Mesquite flat sand dunes, which make it seem like a little bit of North Africa has popped up in the middle of “normal” California canyon roads.
There were plenty of places that I didn’t get to within the park including Ubehebe crater, the Borax works, the racetrack, and artists drive. Another visit is clearly in order at some point. But even with what I did see, it is clear that mother nature, in her inimitable fashion, has put together contrast, contradiction, beauty, surprise, diversity, the improbable, and the extreme, into a package that leaves you awestruck. You can understand why it attracts tens of thousands of people to the middle of nowhere. Las Vegas has nothing on this place.