Probably twice a year I sleep in a tent without a rainfly. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but for me, it’s a bit of a novelty. With manic weather in the PNW where I do most of my exploring, even the most beautiful evenings can give way to surprise rainstorms or dense layers of early-morning dew leading to soggy gear and cranky campers. Beautifully crafted social media posts might lead you to believe that the quintessential image of camping under the stars is a regular occurrence, but in my reality, it’s a rare but gratifying experience. This is especially true when your home away from home is staked out in a spot like Death Valley where light pollution has yet to rear its ugly head and where I happened to be when everything lined up on the night in question.
To correctly understand the majesty of this night you have to understand the thirteen or so hours leading up to my head hitting the pillow. Some days riding dual-sport motorcycles are longer than others, and this one was longer than most. It began at a rustic campsite above Lake Isabella along the Kern River. In the morning, camp stoves hissed the song of a new day, and coffee was enjoyed while we let the warm sun dry our tents. We loaded our motorcycles and headed towards Sherman Pass with uncertainty as to whether the road was even open. It turns out they had just opened the gate earlier that morning! We were rewarded with unbelievably twisty pavement, crisp temperatures, and almost no other traffic. We did a short, quarter-mile hike to the Bald Mountain fire lookout, which was a nice break despite the exertion required at 9,382 feet. From the top, we feasted our eyes on Mt. Whitney, Olancha Peak, Mt. Langley and Telescope Peak all the way in Death Valley. With a lot of miles ahead and midday approaching rapidly, we started our descent to Indian Wells in the Central Valley by way of sweeping curves on more exquisite pavement.
Things got adventurous early that afternoon as our group got separated, and I along with two other riders decided to see the Trona Pinnacles in route to Panamint Springs. From the highway the pinnacles didn’t look too far at all, a twenty-minute detour at most… This turned out to be a classic desert illusion compounded by my choice to take a primitive “road” instead of the regularly trafficked thoroughfare that found us stuck axle-deep in sand. After some digging and a lot of sweat, we started back towards the highway when my chain ejected itself from the sprocket. Thankfully the rouge chain didn’t destroy my engine case, and after another sweaty half hour we were back on track. By the time we made it to Panamint Springs, our intended lunch stop, it was late in the afternoon, and the sensible faction of our group who didn’t detour was eager to get moving. So we hurriedly fueled up and grabbed some provisions before embarking on what we knew would be the most challenging riding of the whole trip.
Lippincott Pass is a steep switchback climb strewn with cantaloupe(and larger)-sized rocks, washouts, and exposure. When you are on a fully loaded 500-plus pound adventure bike this type of terrain is not to be taken lightly. This is the type of terrain you want to tackle well rested and early in the day due to the mental and physical demands, but we didn’t have that luxury. Another rider and I had fallen behind to shoot photos, and now we were paying the price as the sun began to set, and we knew the rest of our party was setting camp somewhere over the crest. So we ham-fisted it, called on non-existent talent reserves and came up short! My progress abruptly halted as I high centered on a rock then watched my buddy (a very talented rider) unceremoniously dump his bike twenty feet farther up. So now we were both stopped on an extremely steep hill with no energy and no other option than to struggle on. Somehow my bike never hit the ground, and I forced that unruly beast on despite fatigue and low light.
By the time kickstands hit the ground at the rustic camp the rest of our group had established I had been on my feet or in the saddle since 7 am. More than thirteen hours had passed in a blur, and I was entirely high on adrenaline. With no wood, we sat around a fire ring occupied by a water jug illuminated with a headlamp while we inhaled freeze-dried meals and whatever snacks had not been crushed throughout the day. I felt as if I had conquered something and I had a grin plastered to my face as the greatest hits reel of close calls played in my head.
I set up my Copper Spur tent in the dark, like every night on that trip and decided to do without the rain fly in the windless and warm environment. With all of my gear strewn messily in my tent encompassing me like a cocoon, I counted shooting stars before succumbing to sleep. At dawn, I awoke to warm gusts and a stunning sunrise just over my patiently waiting motorcycle. Lying there comfortably exposed to nature my faith in camping and motorcycle travel was bountifully reaffirmed.
Spencer Hill has been fueling his motorcycle addiction with adventure since first swinging his leg over a bike in 2010. Whether exploring familiar dirt in the Pacific Northwest or crisscrossing the United States, Spencer is always in search of scenic off-road routes, epic camping locations and the best gear possible. He began writing shortly after taking up two-wheel travel to share his experiences and offer insight with his extensive backpacking, camping and overland background. Find him on the web, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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