I got up and headed to a nearby cafe. Nip randomly discovered me, and decided to join me for breakfast. We spoke about what I might encounter at Saline Valley for an hour or so. He was obviously quite concerned for my safety in his own way, which was touching. At one point he pronounced that "you got some big hairy balls on you girl!" Um. Thanks, I guess?
I packed up my stuff and crammed it all on the bike. Nip brought out a baggie full of trail mix as a gift. Aww.
After assuring him that I had at least 3 liters of water, I gave Nip a hug and set off around 11:30. It was nice to be on the road again, the sky was clear and the landscape opened up in front of me. There's just something about being on an endless highway that screams freedom to me. Maybe I've listened to "Born to be Wild" one too many times.
I aimed for Bishop. I needed to get a new ratchet, having apparently left mine in Oregon, as well as stock up on some supplies for a few days off the grid. You wouldn't think that a store with a giant chicken on the roof would have a lot of vegetarian food, but a lot of rock climbers visit this area. Many of them are vegetarian, so I had a nice selection.
I merged onto highway 168 and started looking for Death Valley Road.
There was a nice big sign pointing the way to Saline Valley. Shortly thereafter, more signs informed me that everything was closed. From other reports of the road conditions, I knew to expect this, but it drove the reality of what I was about to do home for me.
As did this:
However, they should have added "... Eventually" to that sign, because it was a flagrant lie. The pavement went on for another half hour, winding through canyons. I had it all to myself.
The tension built until I finally saw the entrance to Saline Valley Road. They'd covered it with scary-looking warnings to keep out the unwary, including "High Clearance 4 Wheel Drive Vehicles Only".
Well, this was it. Win, lose, or draw, there's no turning back now...
The road began innocently enough, nice, wide, smooth dirt. The only thing to see in any direction was desert and mountains. It was lovely.
My path followed the contours of the land, rising and falling. It switchbacked steeply down this hill, with some rocks which made me extra careful, but nothing that I couldn't handle. It reminded me a bit of Hess Road, at the Hells Canyon rally. I thought about how nervous I was back then and laughed.
At the bottom, there were some buildings, one of which looked abandoned, the others seemed to see regular use. Some men were working on the side of the road near that tower, but I didn't have time to stop and chat. I needed to be at the springs before it got dark, and it was already almost four.
Out of nowhere, there was some deeper sand in a corner, I saw it just in time. Gingerly, I tried not to steer too sharply, and managed to make it through without dropping it. The road slowly ascended, breaking into the treeline.
Dropping into a canyon, the route became rocky and washed out, though it was clear that an effort had been made to push the majority off to the sides. I didn't stop at the worst part, it was definitely a one-lane road with many blind corners, and the idea of meeting somebody coming the other direction was very unappealing. After the previous few days, even the worst was a cakewalk by comparison.
The road returned to the placid, rolling hills from earlier. I stood on the pegs and let the dirt and rocks fly underneath me, going about 30mph or so. At one point I crested a hill and the valley opened up below me, the view heartbreakingly beautiful. I found myself beginning to appreciate the desaturated emptiness of the landscape, harsh but straightforward. It's difficult to express just how vast this area is with pictures. It can be deceptive even to the naked eye, the clarity of the air here means that things which appear to be a few miles away might be 20, or more. This has proven deadly to those who become stranded.
Another rider had mentioned that the washouts on this road sneak up on you, and I definitely agree. The well-graded portions lull you into a false sense of security. I had my eyes peeled, but even still, I ran over a small one so quickly that I barely had time to react. I slowed down afterwards and became more vigilant, which is good, because some of them were pretty nasty, with larger rocks and soft, deep gravel. I did fine for the most part, but almost got stuck in one with a sharp turn, I was not able to maneuver as sharply as the road did, and ended up briefly wedged into a gravel pile. Thankfully, I was able to free myself by rocking back and forth.
About 40 miles in, the washes got much worse. At one point, there was a very large U-shaped dip in the road. I wondered how folks without high-clearance vehicles were able to make it past there. The last few miles before the turn off for the springs had some deep sand and occasional moon dust, and for the first time that day I felt honestly afraid. I slowed to a crawl. My feet were extended through most of it, and I tried not to think about the possibility of my leg getting trapped underneath my panniers as I dabbed from time to time to keep the bike upright.
I was running out of daylight when I found the turnoff to the Hot Springs. This road had even more sand and moon dust, as it was crossed by many washes. I was relieved when I found the infamous "bat sign", which promised that I was nearly there.
Suddenly: burros. Approaching with extreme caution, I stopped the bike and walked a bit closer. They were fearless.
I pulled up to the springs as what little light remained quickly faded from the sky. There were lots of trucks with campers, a couple of RVs (?!), and various people milling around, far more people than I had expected there to be. I asked a random passerby where I should camp, and he pointed to a spot up on a little hill. I spotted a coyote darting away as I pulled up, a huge grin on my face. I was excited to have arrived without mishap, doubly so to be out of the sand before dark. Fuck yeah, I did it! I'm here!
My camp was assembled by flashlight. Afterwards, I introduced myself to my neighbor and he invited me to use his camp stove if I needed to cook anything. We swapped stories as I heated up and ate some Indian food with tortillas.
I put on my swimsuit and headed down to the springs. Surprisingly alone, I slipped into a circular man-made pool, the nearly too-hot spring water blissfully relaxing after my long day. Reality disappeared as I floated, staring up at the full moon through the palm trees which were dancing in the wind. Perfect.