“You’d better wear your thermals,” my husband warned as he came inside with the motorcycle cover bundled up in front of him. “It’s only 39 degrees out there!”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got them on,” I assured him in a muffled voice, as I bent over to zip up my stiff leather chaps. As I added layers of clothing, it became difficult to move. Currently I had on a thermal top, sweater, leather vest, thermal bottoms, jeans, chaps, and a heavy leather Harley jacket. My arms came to rest at nearly right angles from my body, and I couldn’t raise my leg higher than an inch. Getting on our Ultra Limited touring bike was going to be challenging. Too many pieces of clothing to be wearing in the fuzzy predawn hours.
“Let’s go,” Frank said. “It’s too hot standing inside with all this gear on.” He was clothed head to toe in black leather, his pale blue eyes sparkling with excitement. Riding with the Inland Empire Harley Owners Group was an adventure no matter what temperatures we faced. We had already experienced a relentless rainstorm and snow flurries on last year’s Grand Canyon trip, so we were confident that we were ready for anything.
So began the Harley trip forever known as the Cold Ride. (Here I insert my plea that if you are a permanent resident of Iowa, Minnesota, or Wisconsin, please suffer the whining of southern Californians.) It was the end of February, which for our desert region meant weather anywhere from 60 degrees to 80 degrees, and rolling the dice for either rain or blue skies. It was a bit cool when the group rolled out of the parking lot that morning, but foolishly, I believed it would warm up as the trip progressed. Everyone knows Death Valley is the warmest place in North America, right?
Hours later, as we approached the National Park entrance, I noticed a thin coating of white covering the barren desert around us. “What is that white stuff?” I asked my husband through our com system.
“It must be salt,” he answered.
Our pack of twenty motorcycles had been on the road since 7:00 a.m. with one breakfast break, and my leather gloves were not doing their job. Fortunately, I was the passenger, not the rider, so I could hide my hands behind the windbreak of my husband’s broad back. Even with a thick wooly gaiter protecting my neck and chin, my face under my helmet felt like it would crack if I smiled. As the hours passed, I progressed from chilly to freezing cold to numb to final acceptance that cold was the new normal. The sun on the back of my jacket felt less cold than the racing wind that flowed around the front windshield and fairing before exiting over the tour pack behind my seat.
As I continued to ponder the patches of white crust that continued on both sides of the road, I had the sinking sensation that it was not salt.
After entering Death Valley, our road captain led us down to Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation in North America. We stopped for a break in a parking lot next to a dried up lakebed. The wall of rock facing us had a sign—282 feet below sea level. Further up, another sign announced sea level. The sun felt good on our faces, and I sighed in relief. Frank and I took off our heavy leather jackets.
“It looks like we’re surrounded by sculpture,” my husband said, looking around at the multicolored walls of rock that framed the lakebed. Jagged red cliffs towered over hills painted with bands of white, yellow, brown, and black. The lakebed looked like a large dried up mud puddle, with some moisture still lingering near its center.
“It’s beautiful,” I agreed. We ate some trail mix and drank water. Then we walked around, shaking out our stiff legs. I debated whether I had time to take off my leather chaps. At that moment, the chapter photographer called us together for a group picture, and it was time to saddle up.
From the bottom of Death Valley, the Harleys wound around a narrow road that led us to a higher vista. The winding road compressed into two final switchbacks before reaching Dante’s View. Icy bursts of wind replaced the mild sunshine down at Bad Water Basin. I was glad I had resisted the temptation to take off my chaps.
We stopped at the parking lot on the flat top of the sharply rising peak. From here, the entire mosaic of Death Valley spread out before us. The parking lot at Badwater Basin looked like a tiny speck from our perspective. It took my breath away, or maybe it was the icy wind buffeting me.
“Aren’t you cold?” I asked Frank. His face was red, and his hands were buried in the pockets of his lightweight windbreaker. He had taken off his chaps at our previous stop.
“A little,” he admitted, as he reached into his saddlebag to put on his leather jacket.
Our group walked around, taking pictures from different places. One rider shared his famous lemon bars from a Tupperware container in his tourpak. He brings them on every overnighter. I licked powder sugar off my frozen fingers before replacing my gloves. Most of us still had our helmets on because of the cold, but with modular helmets, the front piece raises up so that you can still eat and drink.
Having mercy on us standing there shivering, the road captain called out, “Let’s ride,” and we cautiously crawled back down the hairpin turns and out on the level, straight road through Death Valley.
“I bet there’s tons of other places we could go around here,” Frank said on the com.
I looked around at the dirt paths that spread out into the wilderness on both sides. “I don’t know if those roads would be good for Harleys,” I said.
“Come on, dear,” he said with a chuckle. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
My sense of adventure included traveling on asphalt roads that actually appeared on maps and led us eventually to our warm motel.
Our next stop was a tiny gas station in the middle of nowhere. The gas price was double what we would have paid back in Riverside, so not all of the riders filled up. As I looked around to the barren wasteland, I insisted that Frank get gas. Who knew when we would see a gas station again.
After a quick break, we rode on and on through the desert, with no civilization in sight. I was glad that the road captain had already pre-rode this trip, so he knew our turns. If you got lost out here, it might take you all day to reach the next town before you discovered you were going the wrong way.
As we rode, I noticed that we were gradually going higher and the temperatures were getting colder. The sun hid behind clouds near the western ridge, and I had to sit on my hands to keep them less cold. We finally turned right onto a road that led up a large hill. I noticed that the group had slowed down considerably. It took forever for us to reach its crest, but when we did our destination of Beatty, Nevada was in sight. Not until we stopped that night did I realize that the road captain had been one of the riders who didn’t fill up at that lonely station, and his low fuel warning had come on. Some things are best not known until the ride’s over for the day.
When we reached that tiny mining town, I was ready for a hot shower. Most of the day had not been warmer than 50 degrees. Even with sunshine, it had been the coldest day of riding I had ever experienced. But my desire for warmth would have to wait.
As we roared down the main street, I thought I noticed eyes peeking out of curtained windows. Other than a few semi-trucks, there wasn’t any traffic. The gas station was at the far end, five minutes from the beginning of town. We stopped there first before heading to our motel.
Some of us had dinner that night at a saloon on the main street, the same building where I had seen people in the windows. Done with riding for the day, we walked a few freezing blocks to get there. Despite being exhausted, I wanted to run to get out of the cold. The watchers must have put another kettle of chili on just for us because other than a few cowboys, we were the only patrons. The inside of the saloon was wood paneled and smaller than my living room. We sat on the back patio huddled next to the heaters. The waitress remembered our road captain from previous trips and took care of us quickly. No one wants to mess with a thirsty and hungry biker group.