Days 11-13: San Francisco, Yosemite, Death Valley and the Grand Canyon

Miles ridden: 1,304; Money Spent: $250

In the morning, lying in my tent and feeling the cold ocean air, I actually started to miss home. Maybe it was the fact I’d completed my goal and was now entering the return leg. Maybe it was that the days, no matter how much fun, turned lonely at night while sitting quietly by the campfire and squinting at routes through the darkness.

Highway 1 runs all the way down the state. Although I had heard the northern portion until Santa Cruz is the best, I intended to cut east a little sooner, right after hitting San Francisco.

Early in the morning I shot out of a tunnel and there it was, begging me–and the hundreds of other tourists–to be photographed.

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And got so carried away I attempted to be artsy.

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Just off the Golden Gate Bridge, sitting in the water, is Alcatraz Island. Long since emptied of its prisoners, sail boats and ferries float past it, and it’s a tourist attraction in itself.

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I put some miles in along boring interstates and flat highways to get away from the city. Eventually 120 does get interesting, suddenly lifting a couple thousand feet and the road wiggling the whole way up.

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That leads to Yosemite National Park, and I gave it the quick one hour drive through even though the pass is good for a week. It’s nice, though the ocean had spoiled me. If I had to describe the park in one word, it’d be “rocks.”

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The elevation change was a blessing–the heat inland from the ocean was insufferable–and I zipped through Tioga Pass and past many gorgeous vistas trying to make time. I did stop once or twice, the mountains were beautiful after all, and grabbed a couple photos.

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I only made it to Bishop, not nearly as far as I’d hoped to push, since early day traffic had slowed down the pace. I’d been trying to push, trying still–with tomorrow hitting California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona–because things aren’t so well back home, and it’s hard to crawl like a snail when you feel like you should be home.

Tomorrow is the Grand Canyon. Then it’s almost a straight shot home.

*****

Sitting at Gil and Becky’s, pondering over maps the other day, Becky began to talk about their loop across California and through Death Valley.

“Jeff doesn’t want to go through Death Valley this time of year,” said Gil.

“Well,” I perked up, wanting to hear more.   Maybe I just did.

That’s how I came to make the absolutely silly decision to ride through the heart of Death Valley. In June. At high noon.

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Getting to Death Valley, along 395, was an amazing road in itself. Unlike most other roads, where every so often the trees would part and an open space, often partially blocked, would open, all 395 was a vista, with the mountains lining the flat land on both sides in clear view. A smoky haze filled the distance, and, like so often on this trip, made the horizon appear as a fake backdrop.

At the top of one of the small ranges, looking across the land, I could see another coming jump in elevation and the roads leading me down the first, across the divide, and up the second.

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On the way there I stopped at a few overlooks, hopping off the bike in full gear and walking to the edge with everything on, getting weird looks from people in shorts and tank tops as I snapped away.

It really wasn’t that hot.

Then I noticed a 6000 foot elevation sign, and it started to drop. 5000. 4000. 3000. All the way down to sea level. And it got hot.

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I’d been secretly wanting some heat the last few days. It hadn’t been uncomfortably cold, just the kind of cold that wears you down slowly. A blast of hot air from a furnace sounded nice.

Opening the visor felt just like that. My sweat didn’t melt away but began to cook, and I tried to decide whether having it open or closed was killing more brain cells. You know how putting on a too warm sweatshirt makes you want to curl up on the couch and nap? It was like that, only I wanted to curl up on the side of the road and die.

No wonder they call it death valley.

I found myself alternating “wow” and “holy hell” the whole way, mile after mile. I honestly couldn’t think of any other words, but maybe the nerve endings in my brain were just overheated and misfiring.

I did still pull over to take pictures (slam on the brakes, swerve, claw for camera, snap, put it back, then–dripping sweat and pulling away – “wow . . . holy hell”). I figured I should get the pictures now. I knew I would never come back to this hellhole.

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Mud Valley, towards the end of the run, was a welcome sight.

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As I got to Nevada the road turned straight as an arrow.

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I had to skim the north side of Vegas, construction putting me in stop and go traffic on the interstate, and though not nearly Death Valley, where the heat was insufferable, in Vegas it was simply sufferable. At the gas station, the plastic rim on the bottom of my helmet ripped off, the hot glue having melted in the heat before getting caught on my glove.

Behind schedule, I pulled into a rest stop for a nap but ended up spending the night.

With my helmet-head hair shooting in every direction, dirty clothes drenched in sweat (then washed with a liter of Dasani over my head), and tucked up in my sleeping bag on the cement by the picnic table, I probably looked a bit like a homeless man.

I think I was finally beginning to understand how to travel cheap.

*****

With nothing to pack and no shower to take, I simply rolled up my sleeping my bag, ran a hand through my dirty hair, and was on the road as the sun came over the horizon. Any day when you’re going to see a wonder of the world is bound to be a good day.

I started by skirting around Zion as I made my way south. Red was the color of the day, with the mountains, hills and, eventually, even ground becoming red. By the time the sun cleared the distant ridges, I was well on my way.

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The formations along the way reminded me slightly of the badlands, minus the jaggedness and open view in South Dakota.

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On 87 alternate, a scenic byway that leads towards the Grand Canyon, the scenery began to change as the elevation rose. Eventually 87 brought me through curvy roads that wound through a national forest, but first, the red faded away and the vegetation became sparse.

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Finally, after paying my $12 entry fee and making my way towards the Grand Canyon, the roads tightened and became non-stop curves posted at 20-30 mph. Finding the overlook by the visitors center is an exercise in itself, and after making my way past shops, lodges and restaurants, I was rewarded.

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I did a bit of quick exploring, checking out all the photo spots on the map.

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I took too many pictures, more than I can possibly sort through, and I kept hearing people gasp and catch their breath as they looked over the edges. It truly does take the breath away. At many points along the main path, trails have been made from people working their way up the rocks, and, three inches from the edge with no guard rails, you can look down, getting some extreme vertigo. No wonder so many people fall in.

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Leaving the park, I discovered it’s nearly as gorgeous riding along the 87 scenic byway as in the Grand Canyon, which passes through the Vermillion Cliffs and line the road with ridges of dark red clay.

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The western side of the highway, with it’s red cliffs in the distance and dry muted colors along the brown soil, completely brings to mind the road runner cartoons. Traveling east I passed a series of huge rocks, some many times the size of my bike, and endless ridges that lined the horizon at every turn. The soil turned dark red too, the scene reminding less of a cartoon and more of the planet Mars.

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In the afternoon I came across a series of rock formations that seemed to jut up from the ground in random chaotic places and make the strangest patterns.

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I pulled into an opening along the road to get a panoramic shot that would capture the redness surrounding me. I sat on my bike, still idling, looking far to the left and slowly clicking, one picture after another, to get a full 360 view. Around picture 15, with my waist twisted on the seat and my neck cranked, I leaned the bike a little to the left and the front tire turned on the loose gravel. I immediately grabbed the handlebar with my free left hand, feeling the weight begin to shift, but only ended up turning it more with the pressure. Then . . .

whoa . . . whoa . . . holy shit . . .

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Chuckling at my stupidity I got the bike upright. Then I stopped laughing. It wouldn’t start.

So I waited, hoping it was flooded, looking around at the strange landscape, the lack of cars riding along the route and admiring the fact that mother nature, I guess she has a sense of humor after all, seemed to be flipping me the bird.

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A few miles later (it was just flooded) I arrived at Mexican Hat. Mexican Hat Rock in the town of Mexican Hat looks like a . . . you guessed it, Mexican hat.

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I followed some cool roads out of there and more nice scenery, planning to push late into the night and hit Colorado, but a $25 motel was calling my name, and I thought I’d be nice to get some energy and a shower at last for the long two days that were to come.

Great roads. Great sites. Great stories.

All in all, not a bad day.

———-

The whole trip:
Days 1-3Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and the Badlands
Days 4-5Wyoming, Dinosaurs, and Yellowstone
Days 6-7Yellowstone, Idaho, and Oregon
Days 8-10California, Dinner with Strangers, and a Pacific Sunset
Days 11-13: San Francisco, Yosemite, Death Valley, and the Grand Canyon
Days 14-16: Utah, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, and Home