Lost in the Mojave Desert

adventure motorcycle lost mojave desert

I say “lost,” you say “abandoned” — but let’s not quibble over details….

Obviously, leaving my girlfriend alone in the Mojave Desert wasn’t a good idea.

At least she had enough water.

Well…she had some water.

Not a dating decision Dear Abby would have endorsed.

But at this point, I didn’t have any choice….

This story was featured in Overland Magazine (Spring 2017) and Canadian Biker Magazine (June 2017). I mentioned it last year in a Ride Guide post.

girl in mojave desert


We had ridden north from Primm, Nevada. Bright with reflected sunlight, a solar electricity generating tower concentrated the rays of the afternoon sun as we bounced past, winding up a rocky path into the parched hills.

solar electricity generation

And Yvonne wasn’t happy.

It’s not my fault, I explained – again. Road conditions don’t show on maps, or the GPS, either. And it wasn’t like I had promised her a smooth, hard-packed surface when we set out that afternoon.

Then again, I also hadn’t mentioned the possibility of melon-sized rocks and deep sand. And therein was the source of our problem.

Or, depending on how you looked at it, I was the source of our problem.

That was definitely the way she was looking at it.

When I was informed we were riding no farther that day – a message Yvonne soon delivered by stepping off her Yamaha XT225 and throwing herself on her back – I began setting up camp.

exhausted adventure rider

We shrugged out of our riding gear and into something more comfortable. Actually, anything was more comfortable than armored jackets and pants in the heat of the desert.

While Yvonne reclined in her folding camp chair, plotting revenge, I cooked my trademark unexceptional dinner and looked over the bikes, her XT and my Husqvarna TE510. Loose bolts, soft tires, luggage attachments, chain lube: I attended to the usual suspects, declaring we were ready for another day of riding.

That statement earned me a dark look from the other side of the cooking pot.

Slowly, the sun settled over the broad valley, burnishing the scattered Joshua Trees with desert light, stretching long shadows from bushes of creosote and sage.

desert campsite

The rabbit

Dawn repeated the show, this time advancing right to left as we ate breakfast and packed our gear onto the bikes.

The riding was more relaxed, and less rocky, winding across the high valley floor toward the rangy peaks on the northern horizon. We finally crested a ridge and found ourselves at the top of a rocky downhill.

Descending into a wide canyon, the road deteriorated into a trail, and the trail soon degenerated into a dry river-bottom, called a “wash” in the desert. It’s the place that would be submerged in water – if there ever was any water – but the rest of the time is knee-deep in sand and silt and gravel. And rocks. Usually, big rocks.

Waiting for Yvonne to finish picking her way through the technical descent behind me, I scouted for a hard-packed route through the canyon. I rode to the end of the wash, about 750 metres away, and back. There was no hard-packed route – and my riding partner has a congenital aversion to riding in sand. Butterflies, or a fidgety little squirrel or rabbit or something began weakly kicking at my stomach.

Then I heard the XT’s burbling exhaust note and turned to see Yvonne arriving at the wash, triumphant, but noticeably tiring.

The rabbit really started going at it. This did not look promising.

Normally, when we encounter a fiendishly difficult bit of trail, I might ride one bike through and walk back to pilot the second one while Yvonne strolls the offending route. But it was hot. And she did not want to walk.

adventure rider entering canyon

adventure rider woman

motorcycle desert riding

rough going in the desert

So – well, let’s just say things quickly got hotter…and it had nothing to do with global warming. And let’s just leave it at that.

As we eventually ascended from that canyon and into the low mountains that had darkened the northern skyline all morning, we slowly regained our composure and the ability to speak civilly to each other. Aside from a brake pedal that looked like a steel pretzel tacked to the side of the XT’s little engine, no harm done. No lasting harm anyways.

adventure rider

Able once again to focus on the road ahead, I realized that the topographical map on my GPS seemed only marginally correlated to the maze of trails and roads we began intersecting. Once again, as the sun crept past its zenith overhead, I rode off to scout the way ahead.

adventure rider gps

And then the Husky stopped.

I know that’s kind of vague – “stopped” – but that’s how it was. Vague, I mean. The bike just stopped. No tell-tale cough of fuel starvation, no revealing billow of smoke from the exhaust. Stopped.

I thumbed the starter fruitlessly a few times. Then, concerned that I would drain the battery, I flipped out the kick starter, stood on the pegs, and threw my weight into it….

Ah, there’s the problem: compression. As in, the bike didn’t have any.


motorcycle breakdown desert

This Husky doesn’t run

Employing all my extensive experience and diagnostic acumen, I rapidly and definitively determined that the Husky was no longer working.

Yvonne looked at me. I looked at Yvonne. We both looked at the empty desert around us.


I’m proud to say we swiftly discarded our exasperation as unproductive and switched into our practiced problem-solving mode: we pulled out our mobile phones.

And were rewarded with another mute, shared look. No signal. Zero bars. I was actually surprised my phone didn’t have an icon reading, “Oh-oh.”

A plan was in order.

Scrolling the topo map loaded on my GPS, I located a grid pattern of roads, perhaps 20 kilometres north of our position. Unfolding the paper maps we also carried, we determined that forlorn arrangement of roads must be the town of Sandy Valley.

So one of us had to ride there, find a friendly local with a four-wheel drive pickup, and arrange, well, a pick-up. Simple.

We unloaded the camping and cooking gear – and our meagre water supply – from the bikes.

alone in the mojave desert

With only a rudimentary idea what direction to go should she need to walk out of the desert, no way to communicate with me (or anyone else), and only enough water for a single day, Yvonne coolly volunteered to remain with the broken Husky and set up camp. I wrote down our map coordinates and pointed to a nearby hill. If I didn’t return, she could climb up and phone 911 with her position – assuming the cell signal was stronger on top of that modest rise in the desert floor.

That word…assume…you know about that word, right?

I secured the GPS to the handlebars of the XT225. That rabbit was kicking at my stomach again, and, this time, I really didn’t like how it felt. But Yvonne was calm – probably looking forward to a mid-holiday vacation from me. Aware of the situation in which I was placing her, I couldn’t say I was surprised.

Obviously, leaving my girlfriend alone in the Mojave Desert wasn’t a good idea.

But at this point, I didn’t have any choice.

Sandy Valley, Nevada

Tangled trails and dirt tracks tripped me up several times as I rode north. A good sign, in a way: the density and confusion of roads suggested a town must be nearby.

And it was. Sandy Valley: population about the same as a really big Chinese buffet restaurant.

My first entreaty of a friendly truck-owning local was rebuffed. But he directed me to the “Idle Spurs.” Every fading small town has a bar, nucleus and repository of community culture, history and lore…actually, Sandy Valley also had a library…but, as Mark Twain once said, I digress.

There were half a dozen patrons in the Idle Spurs on this sweltering weekday afternoon.

Sensitive to the urgency of my mission, I made sure to order my cold beer with efficiency. I then commenced feeling guilty about Yvonne and her reserve of disagreeably warm drinking water. With that stage of the plan firmly in hand, I proceeded to the next phase: telling my tale of woe to the Idle drinkers. And well they deserved that title: not one of them was willing to leave the cool dimness of the bar to help me. Or even a damsel in distress.

(Don’t tell Yvonne I called her a damsel.)

rider in the mojave

I caught the eye of the bartender, my worry mounting. She shrugged, not unkindly, but it was clear she had no solution to offer.

Sitting at the bar, trying to regain that trouble-solving frame of mind, I pictured the damsel growing increasingly concerned as the afternoon passed.

“Hi’ve godda trut.”

I turned to see a man who could put children through college working as a Willie Nelson impersonator, leaning on the bar and peering at me over the rim of his glass.

“Led’s go.”

Parsing his curious intonation, it dawned on me that he owned a truck and was offering to drive me into the desert to recover my bike. Oh, and Yvonne, of course.

No dawning was necessary, however, to recognize that this friendly old-timer was also speaking with some apparent difficulty. In a bar. In the middle of a weekday. Offering me a ride in his motor vehicle….

Again, I caught the bartender’s eye, sending her a mute question.

She leaned over the bar and whispered to me, “Don’t worry: he’s not drunk. Ferrel never even finishes a drink. He just talks like that. If he’s willing to help, you should take him up on it. He’s probably the most honest guy in town.”

Well, that’s settled then: we’re on our way to Ferrel’s double-wide to get his 4×4.

I’ve got a truck

old truck in the desert

The faded blue Chevrolet truck was listing like a schooner floundering on the rocks. Both right-side tires were flat and the signal lights were dangling from their wires like fish on the line. But Ferrel unearthed an air compressor from the flotsam in the yard and made quick work of the tires.

glass shower doors in a pickup truck

And we were on our way – the passenger-side door handle lying in my lap, where it had fallen when I pulled the door shut.

We drove about 10 metres before we stopped again. “Huh. Fergot sumthin’,” Ferrel muttered, opening his door.

Well, at least I was getting the hang of his unique conversational style.

He returned with a six-pack of beer and settled into the driver’s seat, twisting the cap off a bottle of Miller. Now we were on our way.

Ferrel knew the terrain and had no interest in the GPS I kept waving at him: he was navigating by my brief description of the little gulley where I had, um…deserted Yvonne.

When we hit the first rut in the dirt road, the glove compartment separated from the dashboard and landed in my lap.

“Don’ worry ‘bout dat,” Ferrel said, as he lobbed his nearly full bottle of beer out the window and opened another one. The bartender certainly knew her patrons: over the next 24 hours, Ferrel would have many opportunities to finish a drink. He never did. But I sure could have used one.

We talked as he piloted the wheezing Chevy one-handed through rocky gullies and sandy drifts, and I began to understand how genuine this man was. A story he was relating had him declaring fervently, “I don’t get mad ‘bout much – but you hurt my dog, I’m gonna beat you….”

I relaxed. My fate was safely in the hands of a man whose values I could appreciate.

And then I heard the tire blow.

flat tire in the desert

When the rubber doesn’t meet the road

A whistle of escaping air was clearly discernible, and, hanging out the window, I could see the right front was visibly flattening. I sank back into my seat and looked at Ferrel. He shook his head. “Ain’ got no spare. Gotta jus’ keep goin’.”

So we did. The shrilling of the tire’s death knell diminished, then stopped. We bumped onwards for a time, the jarring of the truck’s cab growing increasingly more violent.

Then began the tortured grinding of metal on rock. I set the glove compartment on the floor and leaned out the window again. The tire was gone. Nothing but a ragged fringe of rubber remained, like a post-pubescent beard ringing the wheel’s chin.

Our pace slowed until we were creeping slowly south towards the spot where I had left Yvonne that afternoon. Ferrel began to look worried. Flinging a half-drained Miller out the window, he looked at me.

“Gettin’ dark. Truck’s got no lights.”


He pulled out his cell phone and held it up to the windshield; stretched his arm out his window and waggled his hand around. Frowning, he returned the mobile to his pocket. I didn’t need to ask if there was any signal.

We drove on, the rim shrieking each time the 4×4 clambered up and over rocks. Finally, at the ridgeline of a small hill, I pointed eagerly: our tent!

motorcycle desert camp

And then I noticed…

Yvonne had set up camp in a sheltered hollow and was settling in as twilight claimed the Mojave. Her peaceful evening was shattered by what the uncharitable might call panicked bellowing. “Hurry! Pack up the camp!” I shouted. “We have to get out of here before dark!”

I struggled to push the broken Husqvarna up a slight rise while Yvonne collapsed tent poles and Ferrel backed his truck towards me. Together, we rolled the bike into the bed of the Chevy; he pointed to a snarled knot of desiccated old ropes, and I secured the Husky the best I could manage.

As I hopped down from the truck, I cringed at the state of the front wheel. The rim was ravaged, noticeably shrunken in diameter.

Oh…and the rear tire was flat….

We threw the camping gear into the truck, Yvonne slid in beside Ferrel, and, clutching my bike as we lurched forward, I crouched in the back. Right beside the glass shower doors.

Did I mention there were glass shower doors in the truck box? Right beside me? While we heaved and pitched down a rugged 4×4 road?

motorcycle rescued from desert

Ferrel was racing the darkness – at about 15 kilometres per hour – while the Husqvarna hopped up and down like a massive frog leashed to the truck with scraps of tattered rope.

A beer bottle soared out the driver’s window. I felt improbably comforted.

I never finish my drinks

We eventually wobbled into Ferrel’s yard just ahead of full darkness. The truck’s front wheel was no more than an undersized disc of tattered metal; his six-pack of Miller was depleted.

destroyed truck wheel

damaged wheel

So our next step was clearly a return visit to the Idle Spurs.

Piling into Ferrel’s car, along with his wife, Marsha, we retreated to the local oasis and set up a round of drinks on the bar. We talked and toasted our rescuer and laughed and Marsha taught us how to use the video blackjack terminals.

And Ferrel didn’t finish his Red Eye – that’s beer with tomato juice, just so you know.

“Ferrel,” I said, “Do you mind if I ask why you don’t finish your drinks?”

He fixed me with a measuring glare. “Yeah, I’ll tell ya. I got a lot o’ friends who’re a lot thirstier than me,” he growled, “And most of ‘em are dead!”

It’s true: Ferrel was likely the most honest guy in town. And certainly one of the most decent, too.

sandy valley utah

We camped outside their mobile home – choosing dirt, instead of the carpeted section of the dusty yard – and returned again to the Idle Spurs for breakfast together. Over cellophane-packaged Danish, at our repeated urging, Ferrel finally ceded that we might give him some money for repairs to his truck. “But,” he insisted, “$20 is ‘nuff.”

Yvonne and I looked at each other in disbelief.

After breakfast, I rode her trustworthy XT to Overton, Nevada to retrieve our car and the motorcycle trailer. We loaded up the Husky and stuffed all the cash we had into an envelope. It wasn’t enough – but without a doubt it was more than Ferrel would have agreed to.

We hugged our rescuer, and handed him the sealed envelope.

And that was the best motorcycle breakdown we’ve ever had.

Ferrel to the rescue

972 New Best Friends — the whole story

touratech adventure rally

Touratech USA Adventure Rally

You might have seen my teaser post about the largest adventure motorcycle rally in North America, 972 New Best Friends, first published in Canadian Biker magazine, August 2017.

Well, here’s the whole story of field repair magic, endless summer riding, and a guy named Jimmy Lewis. You might have heard of him.

Winter’s over. Let’s ride!

Winter 2017 stubbornly relented in British Columbia sometime around late May, so the last weekend of June marked my first camping trip of the season.

With the heat blooming and the snow finally melting from the high elevations, it was time to explore the peaks of the Pacific Northwest — just me, my Husqvarna TE610 and 972 friends.

husqvarna te610 touratech rally

No, I’m not that popular. But the folks at Touratech USA have no problem assembling an enthusiastic crowd at their annual Touratech Adventure Rally. They’ve hosted this event for seven years in the northwest – the last four in Plain, Washington – staging seminars, demonstrations, lighthearted competition and serious instruction over the three-day event.

Held on the final weekend of June each year, this edition of North America’s largest adventure rally drew riders from as far away as Florida, Montana, Texas and Alberta; there was a tight-knit bunch of transplanted Argentinians, living in Los Angeles, and hankering for an adventure. (Apparently, Argentinians want to ride here, while we want to ride there. I think that’s the irony they call “life”….)

Riders trickled into the event site throughout Thursday afternoon on their GS Adventures, their KTMs, Africa Twins, trusty KLRs and V-Stroms and DR650s. It was a marque-agnostic gathering of men and women, veterans and neophytes, all united in their love for motorcycles, adventure, and the top-drawer quality of people who are drawn to both.

new friends

Rally participants set up tents and pull up RVs in a valley dividing the snow-capped peaks of the eastern reaches of the Coast Mountains from the more subtle contours of the interior plateau. Plain is the perfect convergence of rain shadow, accessible terrain and grand panoramas: the off-road riding opportunities are dry, scenic and virtually unlimited.

There’s plenty of space at the rally site’s grassy field for participants’ and vendors’ tents, and fuel, groceries and a restaurant are situated right across the street. Accommodating local landowners and proprietors open their arms to the legions of two-wheeled weekend warriors, providing service with a smile to the outsized waves of customers rarely seen in this tiny hamlet.

Oh, and there’s riding. Almost 1,100 kilometres of riding.

In preparation for the rally each year, a team of volunteer pathfinders, riders and GPS wranglers, coordinated by Touratech staffer Iain Glynn, start scouting the area as the snow melts. They devote more than a month to verifying road conditions, uncovering new trails, collecting GPS data and designing safe, enjoyable routes

This year’s menu offered up 11 rides, ranging from 45 to 185 kilometres in length, blending over 1,000 kilometres of pavement, logging roads and sections of single-track. That’s a pretty impressive number – but over the last seven years, staff and volunteers have recorded an astounding 80,000 kilometres of GPS tracks in the area! It’s a titanic effort, requiring coordination with the changing priorities of local forest service managers and navigation of a winter’s worth of erosion, mud and downed trees.

adventure ride leader


adventure motorcycle rider infinity loop
Infinity Loop

Rally participants have the option of navigating the resulting GPS tracks on their own, or of signing up for some of the dozens of organized group rides. The two I joined were seamlessly shepherded by Glynn’s well-prepared ride leaders and sweeps, allowing rally participants to focus on the trail, meet new friends, and leave the planning and safety management to the expert volunteers.

ridge runner trail
Ridge Runner

Tracks like “Ridge Runner” and “Dry Creek” ascended the crests of rolling mountains, topping out at over 1,800 metres, high enough that the snow had only recently cleared the extensive network of logging roads. “Infinity” challenged riders to negotiate kilometres of snaking single-track – and at least one rider on the somewhat ponderous V-Strom 1000 was up to the challenge! Easier options abounded, as well, tracing local pavement and graded dirt tracks through Wenatchee National Forest, following roads with improbable names like “Chumstick” and “Chiwawa.”

dry creek adventure ride
Dry Creek

Tired…and absurdly dusty

Back at the rally, tired and absurdly dusty, riders parked their KTM Adventures next to WR250s before braving the cold-water showers and raising a complimentary pint of some of Washington’s finest craft breweries.

Touratech USA’s Marketing and Events Director, Matt Lewis, is responsible for orchestrating most of what happens back at the event site. With the growth in the adventure riding segment, the rally has expanded yearly, so Matt now finds himself beginning work each September on the next June’s event. In fact, most of Touratech’s staff is involved in some fashion, and there are about 100 volunteers who play a critical role as well.

adventure rally vendors tents

It takes a team that large to put on thousands of kilometres of organized rides, and then to stage more than 30 seminars and presentations from Thursday evening to Saturday night.

In his “Emergency and Field Repair Clinic,” Alex Guth, owner and master mechanic at AlyxMoto, confirmed my conviction that cable ties, duct tape and baling wire are magical. Louise Powers, A Girl On A Motorbike off-road coach, shared the tale of how an engagement ring led to her planned departure for a ride to Patagonia this coming August. The Backcountry Iron Chef Competition inspired questionable genius, and plenty of audience laughter, in the form of sautéed shallots…with Cocoa Puffs.

field repair clinic
Alex Guth

There were seminars on motorcycle recovery using mechanical-advantage systems; cultivating a deeper perspective on life through riding; converting your cable clutch to an hydraulic set-up; and adventure stories set in Alaska, South America and Nevada – and most places in between.

In between seminars and rides and trips to the burger stand, riders rekindled friendships and made new acquaintances, discussing adventure bikes and the great people you meet when you’re riding.

Honda and KTM are some of the more keen corporate observers of this adventure bike community, and they served up a full roster of bikes for demo rides. The Africa Twin DCT and KTM’s off-road focussed 1090 Adventure R, not surprisingly, drew riders like teenagers to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Honda’s bikes were yours for an independent half-hour romp; KTM followed the same route through the surrounding hills – but you had to follow their ride leader and stay in the group.

ktm demo ride
KTM guided demo ride
africa twin demo ride
Africa Twin demo ride

(Read my Africa Twin ride review, Riding the Time Machine.)

Level up with Jimmy Lewis

For those looking to level up their riding skills to make better use of that new KTM – or to shake bad habits consolidated over decades of riding an old dirt bike – training courses were offered from Wednesday to Saturday. Jimmy Lewis Off-Road Riding School, Dirt First Off-Road Training and PSSOR ADV Training each offered professional instruction in the techniques every dirty rider should know.

Then, each evening, Jimmy Lewis – Dakar podium finisher, multi-ISDE gold medalist, Baja 1000 overall winner – put everything in perspective with his riding demonstrations and instruction. The only thing more remarkable than Jimmy’s bike control is his humble attitude and down-to-earth delivery…as he effortlessly pilots a giant adventure motorcycle over a pyramid of logs.

jimmy lewis riding skills demonstration
Jimmy Lewis, in his office.
watching jimmy lewis
Watching Jimmy.

Nursing a beer and a newfound excitement for adventure riding, rally participants dispersed after Jimmy’s demonstrations and wandered through more than 30 vendor tents. Protective gear, suspension tuners, off-road motorcycle trailers, aftermarket saddles, luggage  – there were farkles aplenty to peruse.

If your credit card was already showing dangerous signs of fatigue, there were the friendly but tough Skills Challenge and Slow Race events to participate in, or simply observe. Lots of well-deserved trophies found a home in overstuffed panniers.

Tickets and event information

Touratech USA’s Adventure Rally West will return to Plain, WA on June 21-24, 2018. Check www.touratechrally.com for ticket and event information. Early bird tickets for 2017 were the bargain of the year at $100! Training courses are extra, and begin prior to the rally dates.

Lee’s KLR. And Serge’s Slug.

Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle

I don’t have 972 friends — not even on Facebook.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Touratech Adventure Rally West — just me, my bike, and 972 friends.

Touratech Adventure Motorcycle Rally West
Touratech Adventure Motorcycle Rally West

Actually, this annual event’s exploding popularity attracted the 972 attendees – they weren’t really friends drawn to my expansive, uninhibited personality. Mostly because my expansive, uninhibited personality doesn’t exist. I mean, I’m a writer for cripe’s sake: I talk to my keyboard more than to any living human.

(Now, dogs; I talk to dogs a lot. I’m rambling again.)

The point I’m failing to reach here is that even a thousand unacquainted motorcyclists, introverted or not, still share an easy opening gambit:

“So…what’cha riding?”

I met a married couple from San Diego that way, a friendly gang of Argentinian ex-pats, and two friends from Idaho, Lee and Curt, who had ridden together through the Bitterroot Ranges to Plain, Washington to attend the rally.

And they handed me a beer and said: “So…what’cha riding, Kevin?”

Since Husqvarna motorcycles have never achieved any kind of mainstream prominence in North America, my bike is kind of a curiosity to other riders.

So I say, “Husqvarna TE610,” and the guys are vaguely curious. And, because I know this game, I say, “What’cha riding?”

Now, I’m sorry Curt, but I don’t recall your precise answer. I know it was a big BMW GS – but the models just seem to breed like fruit flies, and all those numbers – 1150, 1200, 800 – look: I’m just not good with numbers. But it was big and Bavarian and really sweet.

Lee’s KLR

2016 Kawasaki KLR650
Source: Kawasaki.

Then I turn to Lee. This is like a religious ritual. “What’cha riding?”

And I do remember Lee’s answer. Precisely.

He responded, “Just a KLR.”


And, honestly, I felt gut-punched.

I’m no zealous devotee of the slightly pot-bellied Kawasaki KLR, mostly because I’m not a zealous devotee of any bike. I once owned a KLR, and it reliably transported me on more than 40,000 kilometres of adventures. Many of those kilometres traversed places I was informed the KiLLeR could never manage. And we managed swimmingly, thank you very much.

Kawasaki KLR650
My old KLR650. Not “Just” anything.

I’d own a KLR again: it’s a great bike, because, well…because it’s a bike. Motorcycles open a world of adventure, and the best motorcycle is the one that’s hauling your city-weary ass out into the forest or desert right now.

Also, KLRs are comparatively cheap. Like borscht. Like dirt. (I like dirt.) And I like spending money – so long as the quantities of money I’m spending are somewhere in the general neighbourhood of zero.

But here’s the thing, the gut-punch thing. Lee said, “Just a KLR,” because someone else said something like, “KLR? Pfftt!”

(Pfftt, in this case, being my attempt to capture with the written word a particular verbal expression of disdain. Was that obvious?)

Probably many someones said that.

Anyway, someone – probably many someones – said something like that to Lee. Or wrote something like that in some motorcycle blog or magazine.

And now Lee, who has found the courage to embark on a new adventure, who has rediscovered a child-like spark of joy and freedom that I know will enrich his busy, responsible life as a working-class family man, feels like he’s outranked, a junior member of the boy’s club.

Because he made a sensible decision, spent less, and saved more for his family.

Because he realized the goal of riding is to have an adventure – not to buy one.

He gets it, you know? And, all too often, his reward is a “Pfftt!” from somebody with a fatter wallet and a fancier bike.


Marketing’s rotten stepchild

Maybe this unjust “Just,” like so many other unsettling experiences, is the wretched stepchild of manipulative marketing.

You see, any crowd of adventure motorcyclists, even a crowd of 972 of them, tips unmistakably toward a specific demographic: me.

Bill Murray
Source: Touchstone Pictures / Empirical Pictures

Okay, that’s not actually me.

What I mean is: middle aged, middle class, white male.

And that’s a demographic with dollars. Marketers love us: prime earning years, empty-nesters trying to recapture a piece of our youth. So they sell us the narrative that, yes indeed, we can reclaim that feeling – for a price.

The Honda Africa Twin, for example, has the traction control, ABS and 100 finely-tuned horsepower that any 56 year-old, life insurance broker running-to-paunch clearly must have. It’s only $16,000 – plus the usual taxes, surcharges, destination fees, first-born child….

That’s not much to pay to feel young again, is it? To have an adventure? To escape the job, the city, the mortgage? After all, that German uber-bike would cost almost $7,000 more….

Then again, the KLR650 would cost well under half as much.

But have you seen the uber-bike? It’s just so — SO. I mean, I want one. I really want one.

2017 BMW R1200GS Rallye. Source: motomag.com

And the embarrassing truth is, I want one because BMW not only does some nifty whiz-bang engineering; they do some phenomenal whiz-bang marketing.

If I spend more, I’ll upgrade my adventure, right?

I don’t think so.

To a point, it’s true: the cheapest hardware isn’t usually the most reliable. And I need a reliable, capable bike and some adequate gear to tackle a multi-day ride in the Great Basin Desert.

Reliable like a KLR. Capable like a Husqvarna that might be a little past its prime. Or, yes, like that uber-tactical BMW R1200 GS Adventure. Or the brand-spankin’ KTM 1090 Adventure R.

Source: SeeSeeKTM

But adventure doesn’t spring fully-formed from your wallet like Athena, freed from Zeus’ forehead by Hephaestus’ axe. That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? The ancient Greeks, eh? – progenitors of western society. Weird bunch.

It’s equally weird to think that he who buys the most expensive has the best experience. ‘Cause sometimes he’s just the best consumer.

And then there’s Serge’s slug.

By way of some oddly twisted progression of thoughts, all this cogitating reminded me of my friend Serge.

We were hiking together recently (probably because, for some inscrutable reason, he’s failed to come to his senses and buy an adventure motorcycle), when I learned of an odd ritual Serge acts out.

Each time he spotted a banana slug, he would bend down, gently lift the slimy wee beastie, and deposit him or her in the undergrowth at the trail’s margin, safe from the stomping treads of hikers.

banana slug
Source: Wikimedia Commons photo by Roisterer, CC BY-SA 3.0.

His little ritual – bend, lift, save – made me realize something: in a world of ubiquitous human meddling, slugs die because they’re slow and unassuming.

But being slow is what a slug is supposed to be; there’s nothing wrong with being unassuming. It shouldn’t be a death sentence to be who you are.

Lee’s KLR. And Serge’s Slug.

My point – insubstantial though you may perceive it to be – is that slugs and KLRs are just fine the way they are. They’re not the fastest; they’re not the prettiest. But that doesn’t make them junior members of the “fauna club” or the adventure rally. Their value is inherent, intrinsic. They fit in; they have a role.

And so does Lee. So do introverted writer-types plopped down in a carnival of 1,000 motorcyclists.

Am I reaching here? Yeah.

But it seems to me there’s a genuine connection.

Why should Lee feel compelled to add that “Just,” just because he spent less money than Curt, or me? Why should a slug suffer just because it’s slow?

We’re all on our own adventure, regardless of how much we spend or what qualities we embody.

Lee is trying something new and bold. The banana slug embraces his glacial pace.

I admire both.

And I say, “No more just.”

Oh, and, “What’cha riding?”

Read my report on the Touratech Adventure Rally West in the upcoming August issue of Canadian Biker Magazine.

“I figure you look just like a cougar’s lunch.”

This story originally appeared in the January / February 2017 issue of Canadian Biker magazine.

Francine, my 2008 Husqvarna TE510, declined to start.

I insisted; she refused. Marriage: what are you gonna do?

Start walking, that’s what.

It took a day to reach Ellensburg, Washington, locate a motorcycle shop to retrieve the bike, diagnose and change a broken spark plug lead and intake valve clearances out of spec. A day of vacation lost, yes, but now I was ready to ride again.

I should be here. But I’m not.

Hop on the Husky. Still. Would. Not. Start.

Resigned, I left the bike at the shop and trudged to the Greyhound station. One ticket to Vancouver, please.

A week later, I got the call: the bike was fixed. Turns out, we had actually diagnosed the problems correctly. But, try as she might, Francine couldn’t start after our repairs because I might have neglected to adjust the manual decompression cable that was holding open an exhaust valve. Although nobody has yet proven that to my satisfaction.

Could I have a Corona, please? The family size.

Now that a week of holidays had been sacrificed to my ineptitude, I loaded me and my frustration back on a Greyhound heading south from Vancouver and spent six hours sitting next to a guy drinking a family-sized Corona through a straw. Believe me, I was happy to arrive in Ellensburg.

I retrieved the Husky, with its handlebar-mounted GPS, and began planning a route for the remaining week of my vacation. I had originally intended to ride 200 kilometres east of here, in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, but now that was too far to be feasible in the week I had left. It also meant I hadn’t loaded any maps for this area of Washington on my GPS.

I remained undeterred – uninformed would, admittedly, be a more accurate description – and turned off the pavement onto an overgrown track that looked promising, heading for the nearest empty-looking region on the entirely inadequate Washington state highway map I had just purchased at a gas station.

An hour later, I was forced to admit my plan might suffer some not insignificant flaws, as I was now riding through a forest fire.

I had unwittingly ridden into the destruction of the catastrophic 33,000 hectare Colockum Tarps Fire of 2013.

Squinting through acrid smoke, I was soon lost in a labyrinth of ridges and canyons lit by flickering flames. Dismissing the obvious strategy – Just stop, you moron! – I rode through the murk until I regained enough sense to become acutely anxious about my dwindling fuel supply. Thankfully, I had stumbled across the Columbia River and found a spot to set up camp. It was clearly not a good idea to continue riding.

Hey — this isn’t on the map…

Naturally the next morning I continued riding. I did ponder the idea of retracing my route but, of course, dismissed that thought as spineless and unworthy. But the GPS – its memory card positively bursting with detailed maps of riding areas far beyond the hazy eastern horizon – displayed nothing but my location marker and track. I was a triangle trailing a pink line across grey emptiness. I looked up from the screen; grey, smoky emptiness swallowed the trail up ahead, too. So I guess everything must be fine then….

Oh, I see: I’m right here. That’s not even slightly useful.

I forged ahead, focusing on the tiny arrow that was me, moving across the blankness of the tiny screen of the useless GPS – including when I should have been focusing instead on the old mining road cutting across the hillside I was traversing. So, at a barely discernible curve, I launched the Husky off the mining road and onto the rocky slope below.

Is this why they say, “Look where you want to go?”

I’m not sure what it actually means when people say someone was “knocked out.”

I suppose it could be the disorienting loss of a period of time – seconds, minutes? – or the peculiar displaced feeling of abruptly discovering you are situated somewhere which you don’t recall having any role in your plans whatsoever. As I say, I’m not sure. I am quite positive, though, that such an experience always concludes with a demonstration of the kind of language a person used to pick up on the docks and on whaling ships and today learns on the Internet.

Favoring my left ankle, and, actually, most of that leg, along with sundry other joints, I haltingly improvised repairs. Then I restarted the bike and cajoled it back to the road, uncertain about the implications of the pool of coolant left behind on the rocks. That uncertainty about the damage I may have done to a radiator morphed into an entirely unwelcome certainty as a sizable cloud of steam erupted from under the Husky’s fuel tank. I had been creeping slowly along the path – because, you might recall, I was operating on the fumes that had been the only thing remaining in my fuel tank since the night before – and I had just overwhelmed the limits of a damaged cooling system in the balmy 40o C temperatures of an August day on an arid plateau during a forest fire.

Not lacking a sense of irony, Francine followed the steam with a sputtering from her fuel pump.

We were now out of gas.

I pushed the bike under some scorched pine trees and broke out the magic. You know: JB Weld, hose clamps and zip-ties. I prepared to conduct marginally more thorough repairs to the damaged radiator. The heat was overwhelming, even in the broken shade the trees offered now that the sky was clearing and the sun was vengeful. So I stripped to my…well, let’s just say I stripped, and began disassembling the Husqvarna. That’s when the hornet stung me on the…right there. Sensitive location. Insert euphemism here. You know what I’m talking about, right? And you know that old saying, “They won’t bother you, if you don’t bother them”? Yeah, I used to believe that one, too.

Letting the JB Weld work its magic

Eventually, repairs were complete. I set up camp in an early-evening twilight of dissipating smoke and settled in for a sweltering night, giving the metal epoxy time to metamorphose into unbreakable steel, because somebody told me it would do that if I used the stuff correctly and deserved good karma and loved children and small animals.

Washington, yes. Definitely.

Morning arrived, and I consulted my crisp new state map, using it to accurately pinpoint my location: yep, I was definitely in Washington. Reassured, I strode off down a rocky trail heading north, and, I hoped, towards a town. Or a gas station. Or a place that wasn’t on fire. Remembering vividly the aftermath of tangling with ill-behaved hornets while naked, I was sensibly clad in a protective bathing suit and flip-flops.

An hour later, just as my footwear was beginning to disintegrate on the jagged rocks of the trail, I saw a 4×4 bouncing its way toward me from the crest of a still-smouldering hillside. The truck pulled up and the driver rolled down his window. I could feel the icy wonderful air conditioning.

Peering at me dubiously, he demanded, “You got a weapon? Two people been attacked by cougars right here.”

“Yeah,” said his passenger, “I figure you look just like a cougar’s lunch.”

Of course I do.

They drove me back to the Husqvarna, and, yes, the air conditioning was wonderful. Then, longing for a step ladder, I attempted to deploy my emergency siphon, cleverly included in my minimal kit. Predictably, the hose was too short to span from the tank of the lifted 4×4 to my bike; it slipped and pumped a litre or two into my eyes. But it pumped a few litres into the Husky as well, and once Francine started, the radiator repair held. I emptied my remaining two bottles of drinking water into the rad, and I was back on the trail and out of the fire.

And you know how that saying goes….

I figured the frying pan was probably just biding its time as I rode through eastern Washington’s desert plateaus, making my way back to British Columbia; I anticipated the arrival of that old skillet each night as I camped under smoky skies and contemplated hazy sunsets.

Between the fire and the frying pan

It had been a titanium intake valve worn well beyond its best-before date that had caused the original valve clearance issues more than a week ago. Now, several days after I escaped the fire, that slowly deteriorating valve finally meant I couldn’t keep the Husky running. I had tools and spare valve shims, but even the slimmest of those would no longer allow the thinning valve to close fully. Frying pan.

Don’t try this at home: the Husqvarna factory wouldn’t approve.

Once again I camped and readied my tools: Vice Grips, feeler gauges, valve shims…a large rock, a handful of sand…. With Francine’s fuel tank set aside, I removed the valve cover, water pump, and rocker retainer, so I could extract the offending shim, only twice dropping it perilously close to the black depths of the timing-chain journal.

Into the frying pan: a shim grinding day

And then I spent four hours in the oppressive heat you can only find in the middle of nowhere, grinding a nine millimetre-diameter valve shim on a sand-sprinkled rock. Since I was out of water, the sweat of my brow obligingly mixed with the sand, adding to the abrasive slurry. And more of that Internet language was heard that day in the forest. Talk about abrasive….

Finally, exhausted, finger tips raw, I popped the misshapen – and now very thin – disc of metal into the precise-tolerance Italian racing engine.

Francine fired right up.

Plainly, it was time to head home. Before I ran into bad luck.

Francine wants to go home.

It wasn’t my fault! Okay…maybe it was my fault.

And then Satan said, “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?!”

Ever heard of “Hell’s Revenge”?

Maybe you can help me then, because I’m confused. If you happen to actually be hell, yourself — just humour me here, for argument’s sake — then you’ve already cornered the market on revenge, haven’t you? You kind of are revenge. After all, the story goes that God created you — hell — as a sort of revenge on Satan.

So then… why, or on whom, would you want to be revenged?

And to make matters even more confusing, Hell’s Revenge actually has nothing to do with this post: it’s just a jeep track that criss-crosses the famous Slick Rock Trail in Moab, Utah.

Which does, in fact, have something to do with this post.

It’s the Rapture!

Moab is kind of like Eden to off-road zealots, mountain bikers, motorcyclists, the 4×4 crowd…so it kind of makes sense that the name actually has a bunch of biblical connections, too.

Heaven on earth rock

What I’m sayin’, in a round-about kind of way, is that riding the slick rock is a pilgrimage, a paradise, a temptation and a trial in the desert — it’s the whole religious experience!

Minus, you know, actual divinity and sin and redemption and such.

But the riding…oh, the riding…it’s truly a revelation!

I have for you only one commandment: go ride the rock. And you will be saved, brothers and sisters!

This video is my testimony: a numinous day riding my Husqvarna TE610 around the 17-kilometre Slick Rock trail.

(August, 2016. Soundtrack starts at 0:25)

A riders’ guide to losing your girlfriend

girl in mojave desert

Welcome back, Ride Guide readers.

Gotta let you know about my story this month in Overland Magazine, a large-format adventure motorcycle magazine sold in Europe and in the USA at Barnes and Noble bookstores.

It’s a feature in the “Inspiring Stories” section — a categorization that certainly surprised Yvonne, given that the tale starts with me abandoning her in the Mojave Desert….

No, seriously. Took her motorcycle, and the GPS, and shouted, “Sayonara!” over my shoulder as I rode away.

Read the woeful tale of abandonment and redemption here.

Buy the print version to get some great photos not included online. Pictures of the truck’s front wheel, for example. (Read the story; you’ll see what I mean.)

I also know how to say,”Go pee-pee” in Japanese. Born linguist.


Selective courage

I have selective courage.

You know, like selective hearing:

“Honey, can you fix that loose cupboard door?”


“I don’t know if you can hear me over that death-metal, but I’ve got this bottle of single malt, and I was wondering if you — ”             

Yes! Yes, I would. Thank you. Yes.

Yeah, kind of like that.

Except I think my selective-courage calibration is out of whack. Picture this.

A guy – who might or might not be me – collects a few litres of tepid water from a gas station restroom and then rides a motorcycle 300 kilometres into the desert: no idea where the next water source is; no certainty that the trail continues through the sage and dust, and doesn’t simply fade out or dead-end at some insurmountable crag of rock. The temperature, just as Hollywood would specify, hovers around 45 degrees Celsius; that’s 113 Fahrenheit to my American neighbours.

Along the way to this doubtful destiny, he – who might be I – attempts to acquire adequate speed to launch 250 kilograms of motorcycle and monkey over a blind hilltop. There’s some solace, he later supposes, in the fact that the silty soil which impeded his speed, causing the crash, also provides a soft landing. Though that does nothing to cushion the impact of motorcycle on frail human flesh. Or on frail human ribs, the doctor later tells him.

So now I – willing at last to acknowledge my own stupidity – upend the motorcycle, conduct repairs to the machine and ignore those needed to my body, continue on my way for a few more days, find some water, discover dozens of scorpions encircling my tent (apparently the small ones are the most lethal – who knew?), get lost, backtrack up the steep shelving boulders of a canyon floor, lose control of the bike and puncture the gas tank on a rock, discover both my GPS units have failed, watch my right leg balloon into purple edema after tearing a ligament in my knee, disassemble the valve train on the motorcycle after it perishes mid-desert – yada yada yada….

But here’s the real drama in this story: it isn’t. Dramatic, I mean.

It, the whole thing, it’s not a drama; it’s not an epic, perilous grappling with mortality. It’s fun. I’d do it again – and I have, many times, as soon as possible.

But then friends allude to my bravery – or madness or naiveté or something – and I feel unease knotting my stomach.

Because, honestly, I’m fake news.

Don’t get me wrong: this story isn’t fake, although it is a compilation of a couple trips. And I know the risks in riding solo through thousands of kilometres of desert are real enough: last year, an adventure motorcyclist fell victim to incapacitating heat near Death Valley, around the same time I traversed the final road he would ever ride. He died; I was more fortunate.

But still. And yet. Even so.

I don’t feel the hammering of the heart, the deep breath before the dive, the churning dread in the bowels. Leaving roads and people and comfort behind for multi-day expeditions requires about the same resolve that I need to muster up when a pint of IPA urgently needs my attention. I feel engaged when I venture into the untracked, the unbuilt; I feel competent and keen: excited, a sharp edge. Grateful.

That doesn’t take courage.

And here’s the thing that really baffles me – more accurately, here’s the thing that frightens me. Parties. Employment. (Did I say, “thing,” singular?) Children under the age of 12. Loneliness. Extroverts. Invisibility. Snakes. Purposelessness. Money. Failure. Intimacy. Lack of money. Indecision…

Is my courage calibration out of whack? I fear loneliness, but seek solitude. I feel euphoric when I step into the fiery sweep of a desert fastness, and weak in the knees when faced with a room full of unfamiliar faces at a cocktail party. (Do people still say that, “cocktail parties”?)

Is courage a product of perspective? I don’t believe bravery can be merely a trait, a currency that we carry – some people more, some less. That would mean we could reach into our pockets anytime we wanted and pull out the coin purse. Man purse? Whatever. In any case, not all of us can do that all of the time. Bravery seems to me to be elusive: I’m flush with it one moment, broke the next, uncertain and paralyzed.

I’m confounded by the seeming illogic of what little, selective courage I possess….

And that’s why I ride solo across dangerously inhospitable deserts.

Because, however illogical it may be, it’s there that I feel brave – precisely because I don’t feel I need to be.

Motorcycle (mis)adventure

My newest (mis)adventure motorcycling story, “Fire on the Mountain,” was just published in the January/February issue of Canadian Biker magazine.

“…in this issue [our] first trip is more misadventure touring rather than adventure touring. A trip through the beautiful arid hills of south central Washington state turns challenging for one Vancouver rider as get-offs, leaking fluids, nasty hornet stings, forest fires and long walks out lead to …”

…well, you’ll just have to go buy a copy to find out what it leads to, won’t you?

If a trip to the magazine stand is more adventure than you can handle on a Monday, keep reading the Ride Guide for more stories and expedition planning.

Living in Denio

“Keep the rubber side down.”

If you’ve ridden a motorcycle, you’ve heard it: a well-meaning wish for your safety out there on the mean streets among the prowling menace of the “cagers.” (You’ve heard that one, too: cars = cages, and therefore drivers are cagers. Of course.)

Thing is, there was not a street, mean or otherwise, in sight.

I was alone on a rock-strewn track in the Pueblo Mountains of south west Oregon, pondering my heavily-loaded Kawasaki KLR650. And the rubber side was, in fact, currently the most upward elevation on the topography of the bike.

I’d never seen this kind of inversion before, and it was an oddly reflective moment – though the smell of leaking gas and sour foreboding speedily overtook my reverie. I was a long way from the pavement that now seemed inviting, rather than mean, and I was nearly certain that jaunty twist in the handlebars – rhapsodic though it may have rendered a hipster sculpting his moustache – was well outside the design tolerances intended by Kawasaki’s engineers.

At the time, I was pretty new to this adventure riding thing, and I clearly had not consulted those engineers’ plans when I loaded everything I owned on the KLR and pointed it up a rocky trail.

Grunting, I levered the bike upright, rubber side down, and the damage was clear: handlebars bent (awkward, not serious); mirror broken (okay, didn’t like it anyway); clutch lever snapped off at its mounting point (annoying, insignificant).

Insignificant, that is, unless said clutch lever is your spare, installed after the unintended sacrifice of the original lever a few days earlier, victim of a treacherous rock. In such a case, one simply purchases a new spare lever, and all is well.

Or one procrastinates, and all is seriously bungled.

Wait — is that my spare clutch lever? Oh oh…

Never fear: unlike the aforementioned cages, motorcycles are equipped with sequential transmissions, meaning the gears are actually quite easy to shift without using the clutch. Unless, naturally, you are attempting to launch from a standstill.

An overloaded KLR mired in a rocky stream bed pretty much defines standstill.

But that is not the point of this story.

This is the point: after a night spent trail side, the ruined lever’s fragments lashed together, beads of JB Weld metal epoxy fusing the seams, I met Deborah, Mike and Donald.

My improvised repair held up as, in the early morning heat of the desert, I retraced my path of yesterday. I reached Oregon Route 205 and turned south, hoping the town of Denio, Nevada, some 30 kilometres away, would possess a repair shop or even a motorcycle dealer.

I can tell you now that Denio, Nevada is a census-designated place – according to the federal government, it doesn’t deserve the appellation of “town” – with a population somewhat less than 50, and a built-up area of precisely 38 houses – although I may have included a few barns, outbuildings, shacks and sheds in the count. And precisely zero repair shops or motorcycle dealers.

In fact, the only sign of life I could see was a triangle of lawn chairs set in the shade of a tree whose branches arched over the roof of a double-wide mobile home. Occupying those chairs, a woman and two men were occupied in adding to the substantial pile of empty Bud Light beer cans amassing at their feet.

It was just after 9:00 am.

Image credit: Tad Hetu

I was reluctant to intrude. Or scared. Maybe kind of scared…

Denio lies at the junction of Oregon’s Harney county and Nevada’s Humboldt – the kind of places where guns and opinions are big and dangerous and worn on the hip. Ammon Bundy and his band of anti-government militants staged an armed takeover of a wildlife sanctuary 170 kilometres north of Denio in 2016; the borders of the American Redoubt are drawn nearby, an ad-hoc refuge for libertarian-leaning survivalists who revere the Second Amendment and are looking for a place to fortify when the economy and things in general go all to hell. Both Harney and Humboldt counties registered over 70% support for the Republican candidate in a recent presidential election you may have heard about.

And now you see what this story is really about….

Deborah, Mike and Donald – none of whom were actually named that, by the way – were tracking me with their eyes long before I hit the kill switch in their dusty driveway. I thought I could get the KLR rolling again (even though my temporary repair to the clutch lever had now failed) as long as I stopped somewhere with a loose surface and a clear runway.

I pulled off my helmet and warily began to relate my tale. Deborah looked at me dubiously; there was something she didn’t like about my story — specifically, it turns out, the fact that I was telling it without a beer in my hand and a chair in the shade. With those concerns rectified, she listened as intently as the men sitting to either side of her. Mike and Donald were heading out for a few days of fishing, and had detoured along the way to visit their old friend, Deb, whom they hadn’t seen in about a year.

As I finished explaining my situation, Donald said softly, “Closest bike shop’s in Winnemucca. Hundred miles south.” He registered the anxiety on my face and continued, “Here’s what ya gotta do…”

Don was a UPS driver, and knew every byway and track that would keep me – and my inoperable clutch – off the pavement and away from stop signs and street lights as I approached Winnemucca. He patiently repeated his directions twice as I committed them to memory.

“And if you get lost or broke down along the way, you just knock on anybody’s door.” Mike and Deb nodded while Don went on, saying, “And if’n nobody’s home, you just go right in.”

Now I was the dubious one, and he could see it.

“Out here, you break down, you run out o’ water, you could die. It’s gonna be over a hunderd-and-five this afternoon. Folks know it. Nobody ever locks their door. You just go right in and do what you need to – use the phone, get some water, food. You could leave a note or somethin’, I suppose.”

Deb handed me another beer before sharing her story. “I just got back from Hawaii. Had some friends there I was staying with. I was gone over a year. Left my door unlocked, and I think somebody musta used the place: when I got back, there was more cans in the pantry than when I left.”

We sat for a couple hours, a few beers, talked about America and politics and Canada and bullfrog fishing (yes, you use a regular fishing pole!). We laughed at Deb’s practiced joke that she was, “Living in Denio.” And my fear evolved into surprise and finally admiration – making a quick stop along the way for some shame about my stereotypes. Finally, I think we all settled on just feeling human.

And that’s the point of this story. Don and Mike and Deb are the point: they are the people – the millions of people – in the USA who care for their friends, trust their neighbours, and help strangers in need.

I know you’re still out there; I need you out there…

Because you give me hope.

Riding the Owyhee Desert

This story first appeared in Canadian Biker magazine (March 2016, #319).

Into the Great Alone

On a July morning, as the rising sun promised relentless heat, I topped up the fuel tank of my Kawasaki KLR 650 in Elko, Nevada. Apprehensively, I filled my water bladders in the gas station restroom: crammed with camping equipment, tools, spare parts and food for three days, my panniers could fit only seven litres of water….

Then I wheeled onto a crumbling ribbon of asphalt winding through arid hills towards the 19th century mining settlement of Mountain City, and rode into the blazing emptiness of a desert dawn.

I was at the midpoint of my annual trek, exploring the deserts of the American Southwest. Loaded with topographic maps, my GPS was the key to navigating multi-day off-road routes plotted between towns. The previous night, with my tent pitched below Secret Peak, near Elko, I had charted a route through the Owyhee Desert to McDermitt, a fading mining town straddling the Nevada-Oregon border.

My route would be simple – at first – until I arrived at a dogleg where State Route 226 intersected a feeble stream meandering east from the Owyhee River. Its trickle would be my first objective after quitting the graded gravel of SR 226. From there, my planned route twisted through a braided tracing of lines on my GPS, marking trails and tracks and unused roads. In the Santa Rosa Mountains, the highest elevation of this ride at 2,400 metres, I would briefly parallel the Trans America Trail before searching out Canyon Creek Road and following it to the pavement of Highway 95, south of McDermitt.

Squinting into the heat haze fifty kilometres north of Elko, I turned west onto the 226. The rays of the rising sun settled on my back, and I steeled myself for temperatures threatening to eclipse yesterday’s high of 40 degrees Celsius. The wind blowing through my perforated riding jacket provided some meagre cooling, so I opened the throttle further, more concerned with generating a breeze than risking a speeding ticket in this desolate corner of a sparsely-populated state.

Sweat trickling down the inside of my armour, I muttered to myself, “All the gear, all the time.” Even summer time. Even in the desert….

It was almost 11:00 am. I bypassed State Route 789, which trailed off between low hills towards the declining old town of Tuscarora.

Enjoying the sinuous bends of the gravel road, spellbound in that moment of euphoria familiar to motorcyclists, I was pushing hard when my GPS displayed the waypoint marking a left turn. The KLR’s front wheel ploughed deeply in the loose, dry gravel as I braked to a stop.

Gasping in the sudden heat that clamped down on me, I kicked down the stand and dragged my right leg over the saddle, the top case, tent and Ortlieb panniers making any kind of gracefulness impossible. I folded my mirrors to keep them intact in the inevitable crashes to come, aired the tires down to 13 and 15 psi, and took a sip from my meagre supply of water.

Alone into the shimmering heat of the desert

This was it; this was where I would leave the maintained route and ride, alone, into the shimmering heat of the desert.

Soon I was idling along beside a rare sight in these arid plateaus: vivid green lining the banks of a twisting stream. The water was only a hand-span wide, but it traced a line through strata of mud and sediment marking past accumulations of melting winter snows, heavy sometimes at this altitude of nearly 2,000 metres.

I continued westward, concentrating on the silty paths threading between gnarled bushes of sage, marvelling that these indistinct trails were depicted on the Lowrance GPS. I suspect Nevada’s rich mining history – gold, silver, copper, gypsum – explains the extent and quality of the maps available for the “Silver State.”

The KLR’s fan hummed steadily; I had wired it to a switch on the dash, concerned that the intense heat of these desert rides would quickly result in disaster if the temperature sensor ever failed to activate the fan.

A sharp right turn led to a wider trail, likely made by the trucks of the cattlemen who sometimes traverse these high plains, rather than the hooves of the cattle that had created the narrow tracks I just departed. The terrain was relatively flat, the leeward sides of low ridges sloping gently into drifts of wind-borne sand and silt.

As I rode, morning drifted into noon, into afternoon, early evening. I don’t really pay attention to time in the desert. I camp when I find a spot that appeals to me, go to bed when I’ve counted all the stars I can, dawdle over breakfast before packing to move on. And then I ride.

I increased the pace, standing on the pegs, the KLR clambering confidently over terrain I had repeatedly been informed was beyond the capability of the overweight, under-suspended Kawasaki. Eyes up, sweeping the track ahead, I spotted something: small dark forms on the trail….

Heavy metal monsters

I had never before seen Mormon Crickets, though I had heard improbable stories. Some summers they descend on northern Nevada in swarms numbering in the millions, voracious, flightless red insects measuring five centimetres in length; the size of their swarms can be measured in kilometres. Elko County has been known to use snow plows to clear them from the roads and lays tonnes of poison bait in a desperate bid to reduce their numbers. The residents of the pocket-sized town of Tuscarora have kept the shield-backed katydids – as they are more properly known – at bay with a phalanx of speakers stacked in the streets blasting heavy metal music from dawn to dusk. I kid you not.

As I rolled up and swung clumsily off the bike, these diminutive monsters raced towards me, captivated, I presume, by the possibility that I might be edible. They crawled into the shade cast by the KLR, scuttled up my riding pants. Recalling accounts of the noxious smell they emit if crushed, I flicked them carefully from my legs and decided a swift retreat was in order; it was a very good day to be riding a bike that didn’t require time consuming kick-starting.

The sun was slipping west. I rode a few more kilometres before setting up camp on a grassy ridge where the sandy soil was sculpted into miniature crests and the cricket armies were AWOL.

Space is at a premium when packing for two and three-day off-road crossings between small towns in the desert, and water is always the first priority. That means food isn’t, and my meals reflect that fact: unappetizing pre-packaged pasta invariably forms the entire menu.

But then comes the best part of the day. As the sun sets, the desert relinquishes heat from rock and sand, and the air begins to swirl in a dance of warm breezes. Although equipment for a month-long trip must be ruthlessly cut down, there’s always room for one luxury: the camp chair that lets me lean back and relish the unfolding desert night.

On the second day, my GPS route followed trails that seemed to wilfully fade and re-emerge. I halted frequently to re-assess the map, re-trace my route…re-examine my irrational obsession with solo desert travel. I did have an emergency plan, though: somewhere up ahead, the primitive Lye Creek campsite was said to have a drinking water supply and, possibly, the chance of meeting someone willing to siphon some fuel into the bike. Large as it is, even a KLR’s tank has a limit, and I was worried I would exceed it. I had already travelled almost 300 kilometres. And, to tell the truth, I didn’t actually know where that campsite was located….

I forced my concentration back to the trail as I passed a charred hillside. Lightning strikes occur frequently on this arid plain, and wildfires are the predictable result. Recurring gusts of wind whirled the scorched soil and vegetation into short-lived dust devils that nudged me across the trail, filling my mouth and nose with grit. I continued westward, sipping water each time I stopped to ponder the map or select a branch in the faint, diverging trails.

And I switched the bike to reserve.

As evening approached, I found the Nevada Forestry road that would be my route through the Santa Rosa Mountains. Setting up camp in the lee of a bluff near Hinkey Summit, I found myself lingering, gazing at the sun setting over the distant ridges and plains revealed beyond the height of the range.

Santa Rosa mountain morning

When sunrise woke me, I packed quickly – not my usual lazy morning routine – but I was visualizing a dry gas tank and a long walk during the hottest part of the day. I rode east, accelerating gingerly to conserve fuel, as the forestry road curved back north and then west. Cresting a rise, I saw laid out below me the amphitheatre of Canyon Creek and, with it, my reprieve from hiking in the desert sun: the forestry road descended steeply toward the highway – still hidden below the western horizon – in a series of switchbacks cut deeply into the canyon’s brow.

The left-side laydown

I cut the engine and coasted down the dusty bends of the road, warily entering corners without the stability normally created by a revving engine and the assistance of compression braking. The profound silence of the desert descended, but the cooling breeze of my forward momentum continued. It was a novel sensation that made the penultimate section of this ride especially memorable.

Reaching the flat bottom of the canyon, I restarted the KLR.

The KLR promptly stalled.

Dismounting, I laid the bike down on its left side, urging fuel from the right section of the tank to trickle toward the petcock – I was so close to the pavement! Upright again, the engine reluctantly coughed into life, and I crept onwards.

I had to resort to the “left-side laydown” one more time before rolling up to the Sinclair gas station in McDermitt, my odometer reading more than 420 kilometres. It was the farthest the KLR had ever travelled on a tank of fuel – and I didn’t need to walk after all…except across the street, to the “Say When” Casino, to celebrate with a cold pint.


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