He was planning a 13,000-mile epic ride in the USA, so John Ward hired a Harley, right? Nope, he shipped his 13-year-old Deauville over and wrote a book about his experiences – a few extracts follow…
Heading westward from Sin City, we rode into the wilderness of Blue Diamond Road towards Pahrump. There was just nothing around us except sand, hills and sky. Slowly the hills turned to mountains and we climbed to well over 3000ft. The views were spectacular and the temperature rose as steadily as our altitude.
Stopping to eat, I made sure to fill up with fuel and water, having heard of others getting caught out and dying in the heat, and we followed a dusty road which wound through mountain passes, with numerous tight switchbacks. The viewing point near Shoshone where we stopped to take our pictures next to a ‘pointing cactus’, provided an unbelievably beautiful vista of rolling desert hills climbing ever higher into the distance.
Pausing later, to take on water and get some shade from the still rising temperatures I decided to go for a walk in the desert. After all, how many times would I get the chance to literally walk through the valley of death?
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As soon as I started walking the heat began to affect me, and after only 300m I ran out of water and turned back, my throat screaming for liquid, my head pounding. Angela was reading a sign warning tourists not to go walking as people had died even a few hundred yards from the road.
The heat affected her too. Her right arm, which had had the benefit of full sun, erupted in dozens of tine, water-filled ‘bumps’. Although not painful, these were obviously a little worrying, and we hoped, simply a natural defence against the extreme heat. I was not affected, but Angela, with her pale skin, experience ‘bumpy arm syndrome’ a number of times.
We arrived early evening at Furnace Creek campsite, which was disappointingly ‘cool’ at only 119 degrees, compared to the hottest ever recorded temperature of 134. After a ‘cold’ water wash (hotter than most UK hotel showers) we ‘enjoyed’ our hottest night ever (no, not in that way), foregoing our tent and attempting to sleep on a picnic bench.
Sleep was hard to come by, but we were rewarded with the most magnificent sunset. The colours were reflected all around the convection oven that is Death Valley, and made it impossible to tell which directed was which. When the sun had gone, the sky was a perfect black, punctured by more stars than seemed possible to exist. It was a very special night.
WINDS & MOUNTAINS
The temperature dropped as we rode over mountain passes next day, still travelling west, through the Darwin Falls, Malpais Mesa and Coso Range wildernesses but at the junction with Highway 395 we turned south. As the temperature dropped, the wind increased and we were soon leaning hard to maintain a straight line, which was tiring and soon gave me a real pain in the neck.
At Ridgecrest, the local Honda dealer seemed impressed with the Deauville as he gave it new tyres plus an oil and filter change. Meanwhile, having had our fill of mountain switchbacks (extremely hard work for an inexperienced rider like me, riding two-up and loaded with camping gear) and needing to make up time, we decided to avoid the most severe gradients, on our way to the Sequoia Park, our next destination.
A gentle and steady southerly wind blew as we cruised through desert hills, gradually giving way to totally still air. I was relaxed and wondering what other wonders the journey would bring. Then a hundred metres in front of us a Jeep suddenly swerved violently into the opposite lane. I guessed the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, a genuine hazard on featureless straight roads and especially in this heat. A quarter of a mile away a truck was approaching from the opposite direction.
“He’s lucky that didn’t happen a few seconds later,” I commented to Angela.
Without warning a gust, no, a blast of wind, so strong it felt like being hammered by a battering ram, almost sent us into the opposite gutter, just like the Jeep. Not for the first or last time on this trip, I wondered if my journey was going to end there and then. The gust stopped as suddenly as it had begun and I managed to wrestle the bike back onto our own side of the road just as the truck roared past.
“That was a bit of a shocker, wasn’t it?” was all the ever-calm Angela had to say once we had regained our correct position on the road.
“Er, yes. You could say that.”
We rode on in silence.
The mountains closed in again and almost imperceptibly, the desert landscape changed, gradually becoming greener, initially with large clumps of cactus, which gave way to areas of lush grass as we neared Sequoia Park. Before this trip, I had no idea what American ‘parks’ were like. The image in my mind was of a giant version of Hyde Park with big trees. What I didn’t realise was that they also have mountains. Not the relatively low lying humps which pose as mountains here in the UK, but real honest to goodness MOUNTAINS! Sequoia contains the highest peak in the contiguous American states, Mount Whitney at a whopping 14,505ft.
Once inside the park, the hairpins came thick and fast with gradients so steep that even in first gear, we were close to stalling. On those tight, uphill switchbacks, the vehicles in front were driving over our heads, and it was an enjoyable, albeit challenging ride. So we were tired and disappointed to find that we had another 28 winding miles to the nearest campsite. Despite a ‘Site Full’ sign we talked our way into a rough pitch at Borst Creek. Staying here two nights we met a wonderful Mexican family who shared their food and drink with us, just because we let them share our ‘bear-box’, a steel box used to keep food and strong smelling items away from furry invaders.
We visited the Giant Forest, which contains five of the 10 largest trees in the world, including the famous General Sherman Tree, reputedly the largest, towering 300ft above us and estimated at 2000 years old. Gazing at this true natural wonder, grown from a seed no bigger than a flake of oats, was a rather surreal, almost spiritual moment. To think of the history that has been made during this tree’s life is truly staggering.
Morrow Rock, a huge granite dome, rises up from the forest like a giant boiled egg, and so fascinated me that we only narrowly avoided riding off the road as it grabbed my attention. A 400-step stairway is carved into and built onto the rock, providing a strenuous hike to the top for breath-taking views which encompass much of the park, including the Great Western Divide. Be warned, you do need to be fit and have a good head for heights as guard rails are few and insubstantial.
LIGHT & DARK
The twisting road out of the park was busy, but we made good time riding down through the valley, out of the park and on past Fresno and towards Yosemite National Park. More twisties greeted us as we approached Yosemite for a 100-mile ride over the mountains via the Tioga Pass. The tree cover gradually thinned out and mountain ranges towered above us on both sides leaving us wondering how this road was ever built.
It was hot and the sun was bright in the cloudless sky, so I was wearing sunglasses. Approaching a tight downhill left-hander, I saw the entrance to our first tunnel, and as we entered a sign informed us that the tunnel’s lights were off.
It was like being plunged into a pool of ink, my headlight no more use than candlelight. The road curved sharply to the right meaning there was literally, no light at the end of the tunnel. I slowed and soon the traffic was thick behind us but with nowhere to pull over, we had no option but to keep going.
I completely lost all sense of balance and it was the worst feeling I have ever had when motorcycling. For what seemed an age I struggled to maintain my balance until at last we rode out into blinding sunlight the other side, pulling over immediately.
“That was awful, wasn’t it?” Angela said, visibly shivering, despite the heat of the sun. I could only nod in agreement. Fortunately, all the other tunnels had their lights on.
Riding ever higher, the trees gradually thinned out until there was only sparse vegetation to hide the jagged grey rock faces, which towered above us to one side and dropped down many hundreds of feet on the other.
Stopping at a viewing area, just short of 10,000ft up, we prepared ourselves for the downward journey, which is much steeper than the climb from the west. A fellow tourist warned us that it was going to be, ‘a bit of a white knuckle ride’.
During the next 15 miles we dropped by almost 4000ft. The ride was, as promised, tortuous with continuous steep drops of over 1000ft immediately beside us, and sheer cliffs rising up on the other side. By the time we made our way into Lee Vining my riding skills (and Angela’s trust in me) had been well and truly tested.
Breath-taking, spectacular, daunting, scary, exciting. The ride through Yosemite was all of these and more. You should do it.
Shipping the bike
Transporting the bike was made relatively easy by Dave Wyborn of James Cargo. He helped me complete the necessary forms to allow temporary importation into the USA. I opted to fly the bike over from Manchester, where James Cargo has a depot, as this meant it would not have to be sent until the day before we flew. I was also able to send all our luggage and camping gear with the machine, making travelling much less stressful.
I was allowed to leave a quarter tank of fuel and all the oil, though tyre pressures were lowered substantially to prevent the tyres from exploding in flight. I neglected to take a pump with me and riding into Chicago traffic at night, with semi-flat tyres, in the middle of Tropical Storm Bill was, to say the least, interesting!
The total cost of flying the bike out and shipping it back (which took longer, but there was no rush) was around £1800 – more than it cost me to buy the Deauville, but still much less than renting a machine for 13 weeks.
Read all about it
John’s book of the trip, In Search of Sandy and the Black Beast, is now available. To buy a copy, email info@ johnwardschool.co.uk, or phone 01524 850835 or 07979 544466.
Words & photography: John Ward