Welcome to Death (Valley): South Shore cyclist undergoes extreme temperatures in desert with ominous name
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles to be submitted by South Lake Tahoe photographer Rick Gunn, who is riding his bike around the world to raise awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Over the next two years, he will be chronicling his journey across the globe in the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
Like vampires waiting for the setting sun, we were holed up in the artificial coolness of an air-conditioned cheap motel room in the heart of Death Valley. We were waiting for the dark and the coolness that it brought.
We would wait in vain.
When four o’clock hit, we were forced out by an unsympathetic staff. I slid on my gloves, strapped on my helmet and threw one leg over my bicycle.
“Keep an eye on me,” I said to Geoff Dornan, the state government reporter at the Nevada Appeal who’d come to follow me by car to make sure I was OK.
“I will,” he said, and I began the first few miles from Stovepipe Wells to Furnace Creek and beyond.
For those of you wondering what it might be like to pedal 62 miles through the heart of Death Valley in mid-July, I’m sure you’d expect the word “hot.”
I’m here to tell you what a pathetically non-descriptive word it is for this particular experience.
In fact, take all your favorite words for heat – like, say: “inferno,” “scorcher,” “blazing,” “hellfire,” “boiling,” etc. – then imagine placing them inside an oven set to broil, engulfed by a flame thrower, then submerged in molten lava.
That’s pedaling Death Valley in July.
Within a few pedal strokes, I moved under the weight of a heat so intense that my lungs shrank, my skin retracted, and my body reacted generally as if it was under attack.
The nerves running throughout my body became so acute that I could simultaneously detect the most minute changes in the micropockets of air surrounding me.
For those of you in need of a number, it was 117 degrees. Ripping my attention away from the internal sirens that forewarned the verge of shutdown, I lifted my head and took a look around.
In a word, what I saw was magnificent. The single curve of a bleached-white dune snaked its way through a valley on one side. On the other were peaks of such variant color and striation, that it reminded me of a sort of geologic casino carpet. To my right, tufts of tenacious foliage formed the Devil’s Cornfield, sprinkled with the thin, green branches of hundreds of surrounding Creosote plants.
It all started the night before. I had entered the park from the western border, rolling breezily down slopes of the Eastern Sierra from the Mount Whitney Portal Campground where I had met my good friend, Geoff, and his son, Chris. I invited them specifically to follow me by car through this less-than-hospitable environment.
Geoff is a child of the ’60s whose mantra was, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.”
Somewhere along the line Geoff had dropped the hippy persona and cleverly disguised himself as a responsible adult.
The only detectable remnants from the summer-of-love era were a thinning ponytail and a cassette tape of the Fuggs.
Despite his earlier indiscretions, I had picked Geoff to follow me across the hottest corner of the Earth for several reasons:
— He is as reliable as a Swiss watch.
— He is extremely intelligent.
— He is the only one crazy enough to drive at 8 mph for 20 hours through the heart of Death Valley in the middle of July.
We had decided it was best to travel during the cooler hours of the night, so we hit the road at sunset, then punched our way, eight hours at a time, through the dark.
For most of the ride I was merely a shadow within the twin beam of headlights. I was stuck like glue to those headlights as we ascended a thousand feet to the Darwin Plateau, then plummeted 5,000 feet to Panamint Springs. Descending at 40-plus mph in the dark was a hair-raising affair at best, and was accentuated around corners, when I would move outside the coverage of Geoff’s headlights and the speeding landscape would fade to black.
The next day, during his final escort, Geoff delivered me safely to the town of Pahrump, Nev., where we would say goodbye.
“Thank you,” I said to Geoff and Chris, shaking their hands.
“I’ll either see you in two years with some great stories …” I said in parting, “or I’ll see you in hell.”
Geoff smiled back and said, “If you get there before me, get the poker game started. When I get there, we’ll work on finding some kinda air conditioning.”
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