Saturday, January 28, 2012

3-speed hub overhaul class Feb 11

I re-posted this so it doesn't get lost down the page. This is a great opportunity, and a rare opportunity, to learn about the inner workings and servicing of these amazing hubs. We still have a couple spots left. HC is hosting a 3-speed hub overhaul class on February 11, 2012, 8am-Noon. Mark Stonich from Bikesmith Design will be leading the class in dismantling, servicing, and reassembling the common Sturmey-Archer AW 3-speed hub. You don't need to bring anything to the class, as clean hubs and the necessary tools will be provided. Sturmey Archer parts
(photo by somervillebikes on flickr)

This is consistently the most popular class we offer every year, and I've already had several people express interest. We only do this once per year, so if you are interested in this class, I'd suggest registering sooner than later. The registration fee is $60 and is payable in person at the shop or over the phone 612-727-2565.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

a couple summer cycling events I'm organizing

It wouldn't be mid-winter without some scheming. Sometimes good things come of it. This year, I have decided to organize two cycling events, and I thought I'd mention them here for those who may be interested. Participation in either or both is open to everybody.

First, June 1-3, 2012, the First (possibly annual if you don't wreck it) Midwest Rivendell Owners Rally. These started on the West Coast, spread to the East Coast, and now we're gonna do it for all the good people in the middle of the country. Details are in the exploratory phase, but the rough idea is to start in Red Wing and ride adventurously around Lake Pepin in 2 days, with camping or a hotel stay at the approximate halfway point. Yes, I know that Lake Pepin is often done as a moderately challenging 1-day ride, but I will add some miles, hills, spectacular roads and views, and adversity to the route to stretch it to 2 days. An easier route option will be available for those disinclined to pursue high-adventure in the bluffs, and it will be possible and easy for any rider to combine sections of the more challenging route with sections of the easier route. Obviously, if you own a Rivendell, please bring it to this event. If you don't own a Rivendell (I don't), come for the ride anyway, and try not to feel inadequate.

bike rocks

The second event to keep in mind doesn't have a specific date yet, but I'm thinking it'll be a week in mid to late August. I'm planning another week-long bicycle tour, which will be open to anybody who wants to come and can make it happen. In 2011, five daring excursionists enjoyed a lovely week exploring the backroads, mountain peaks, and camping areas of SW Wisconsin, with an Amtrak segment included to get us to and from the start/end point of the loop. Basically, I will be providing a loose outline and tentative route (always subject to change on a whim), companionship and good humor, and some basic guidance as needed on fundamental bike touring practices and equipment. The basic idea is to provide a welcoming atmosphere for people who are new to bicycle touring and who may be somewhat intimidated by the logistics of traveling by bicycle. It won't be a supported tour where a fossil-fuel burner carries your stuff and gives you a ride when you get tired. A modicum of self-reliance is required, but it won't be a test of extreme fitness and suffering either. Just a fun ride with good people in a beautiful area not exotically far from home.

fillmore county

Feel free to contact me with questions or comments about these events. My email and phone number are somewhere on this page.

Leaving Death Valley on December 27, 2011

The bike shop that was keeping my boxes and packing materials for my bike wasn't going to be open on New Year's Eve, which meant that I wanted to get there somewhat early in the day on December 30. Figuring a solid two days of riding, plus a built-in cushion for bad weather or mechanical issues, I decided to start rolling out of Death Valley on December 27. From Furnace Creek on Hwy 190, there are a number of attractions, including Zabriskie Point:

I played with a panorama app on my phone (click it):

After Zabriskie, I found the turn for 20 Mule Team Canyon Road. This sinewy, dusty gravel road twists through some badlands-like terrain. It was a fairly popular one-way drive, and I pulled over several times to allow cars to pass.

Here, I stopped where a flat-topped embankment seemed like a good spot to make breakfast.

While I was cooking and eating, two different cars stopped. The first contained a couple with a little girl. The mom and the little girl got out to hike and climb and explore the hills (they are on top of the butte in the photo). Meanwhile, the dad, who seemed like the neurotic type, shouted cautions to them from the safety of the car. He explained his concerns about safety to me in painstaking detail. Then he started questioning me about the apparent foolhardiness of riding my bicycle in Death Valley, not to mention the apparently questionable health-value of the bacon I was cooking. After that family drove off, a pickup truck pulled up. Two dads and a bunch of boys got out. While one of the dads and the boys were running around exploring, the other dad chatted with me about mountain biking and integrating backpacking with bicycling. He was a neat guy, and reminded me of a friend/customer from the shop to such a large extent that I caught myself waiting for him to recognize me. He made sure I was well-stocked with water and food, and then I had the place to myself again.

After I finished the 20 Mule Team Canyon Road loop, and returned the Hwy 190, riding was pleasant but uneventful until I reached Death Valley Junction and the Amargosa Hotel and Opera House (unfortunately I didn't take any photos). I decided to try the cafe for a late lunch at around 2 pm. I was expecting overpriced, crummy food. What I got was a delicious patty melt and fries for a very reasonable price. I highly recommend the Amargosa Cafe.

Now I was about 30 miles from Pahrump, where I stayed in a hotel on night 2 of my trip. Since it was already past 3 pm, I had little hope of making Pahrump before dark unless it was all downhill. It was not downhill, of course, so I continually scanned for a place to camp. The countryside was desolate enough, but most of the land along the road was fenced off. Some parts of the fence were broken down, but I wasn't quite ready to exploit those weaknesses yet. I pressed on, resigning myself to rolling into Pahrump after dark and getting another hotel room. I really didn't want another hotel room. Finally, not far from town, I saw my opportunity in the form of a quiet dirt road. The mapping app on my phone confirmed that the dirt road was actually an alternate route to Pahrump, and connected with the road I used when leaving that town almost a week prior. Familiar territory.

After several miles, I rolled off the road into the wild desert. Numerous 4x4 tracks criss-crossed the area, and I envisioned being harassed in my tent by toothless desert outlaws. Reason prevailed, however, and I continued riding through the desert over stuff like this:

I had quite a few spiny plant parts and/or thorns get into my socks and shoes, causing discomfort. I found a spot in the shelter of some brushy, shrub-like trees, and set up my tent. Since I'd eaten recently, I snacked on my trail mix and didn't bother to cook.

The night was very cold. Not Minnesota cold, but as I was equipped with only warm-weather gear, I wasn't terribly comfortable through the night. By morning, my tent had a fairly thick layer of ice on it from the freezing condensation of my breath. It occurred to me that I was nearly 3000 feet higher than I was when camping at Furnace Creek. Snow was visible on nearby peaks. The first view out my tent that morning was spectacular.

Normally, I would have stayed in the tent until the sun warmed things up, but I was lusting after a real breakfast in Pahrump.

Monday, January 23, 2012

bike buyer's guide for beginners

It's getting to be that time of year - in a few months, a lot of people will be in the market to buy a new bike. I just read this article, in which the author earnestly attempts to provide guidelines for the purchase of a good used bike from craigslist. While I agree with some of the points made here (don't waste money on el cheapo department store bikes), I have a number of disagreements, too. But picking apart these quibbles one by one would require a long, tiresome essay, and in the end some other knowledgeable person will say, "yeah, but..." And they'll be right!

Shopping for a first-time new or used bike can be daunting. To make an informed decision, a large volume of technical information must be sorted and distilled, and that winnowing process generally takes some level of expertise! The internet forums are full of "expert" opinions that reflect either ignorance or strong personal bias, and it can be difficult for a novice to figure out who in cyberspace knows his/her stuff and whether that info applies at all to one's personal needs. Maybe the prospective new bike person has an expert in his/her life - a coworker, a relative, a friend, etc - but again, as with the internet forums, it's not always easy to know if your personal guru, no matter how knowledgeable he/she seems, has biases that make any sense for you. A common example is a person will come in to a bike shop looking for a new bike for fitness, fair-weather recreation, and/or commuting, having been informed by a coworker who does triathlons and whose chief credential is having purchased a $3000 bike. If that person also wants to buy a $3000 bike for triathlons, then maybe the friend's advice is useful. Even then, one person's experience is a single data point.

I have my own recommendation: trial and error. Yes, in a world of highly technical knowledge and well-reasoned recommendations, a human has to ride the thing, and that's where it gets complicated. My bikes are all excellent, for me. Some other people might like them, too, but most cyclists would prefer something else. At least one local custom framebuilder, reportedly, will not build a bike for a customer unless that customer has enough experience to know what he or she actually wants. The framebuilder is highly regarded for his craftsmanship and technical knowledge, but he knows that his splendid machines will not be well-received if they are somehow inappropriate for the people who ride them.

This doesn't mean that an uninformed person should blindly take a stab at buying a random bike and hoping to learn a few things from it. It just means that it's not reasonable to expect that a first-time bike purchase will result in the perfect bike to last a lifetime (even if the buyer attempts to become informed about tech details). Get one that's good enough, ride it for awhile, and next time you buy, you'll know more. To get one that's good enough, I suggest finding a good bike shop, communicate your desires to them, and rely on their expertise. In the Twin Cities, we have several dozen shops, and certain shops will accommodate the needs of certain customers better than others. It pays to visit several big shops and several small shops and find one where you feel comfortable. If you feel like the 20-year-old salesperson in the funny hat doesn't understand your bike priorities, you're right! Try dealing with another salesperson or another shop. In any case, communication is huge. Clearly describe what you want, and ask lots of questions. By and large, bike shops are not like Target, where the customer is expected to locate and select merchandise from the shelves with little or no input from store staff. In the case of bike shops, good ones at least, talking to the staff will be the most important thing you can do to get a bike that fits your needs.

The next question is how much to spend. If you're rich, spend a lot, if that's what makes you happy. If you're normal and money is an issue, then make sure you inform the salesperson at the bike shop of your approximate price range. There's a high variance in price-tolerance here, so don't assume the salesperson is a mind-reader. Recently a guy told me he wanted a slightly fancier-than-stock Surly LHT, but that he was trying to keep it somewhat economical. When I started throwing out specifications and prices, he corrected me that he was actually looking to spend double what I was quoting! He apparently considered $3000+ to be an economical bike, while others feel that $300 is a princely sum for a bike, and others apparently think the good bikes start at around $8000. Luckily, an entry-level "hybrid" with decent parts, which would be an excellent choice for many first-time cyclists, is around $500 give or take. For those of us who want to ride more regularly, maybe it's worth spending a bit more to get a bike that can be more easily adapted to our needs as we advance our cycling skill and knowledge. The best bang for the buck, in my opinion, is in the range $1000-1500. Most Surly bike models fall into this range. With bigger brands like Trek or Specialized or whatever, this is the price where the road bikes start to be not blatantly cheap. Here's some wisdom:

You don’t need to spend a million dollars to have a great bike, but if you do spend a million dollars and know what you want you’ll probably also have a great bike.

I don't recommend used bikes for inexperienced cyclists, in general. There are simply too many ways to get ripped off, even if the seller is perfectly honest. Some old bikes require parts that are obsolete, and it's too easy to miss costly mechanical issues even for someone who has some experience with bikes. If you happen to be looking at a new bike, and find a used one just like it in nearly new condition, but at a fraction of the new price, it's probably a good deal (unless it's stolen). Otherwise, I'm of the opinion that there are few (if any) deals out there for used bikes. Anything that's a remotely good bike for a remotely good price is likely to be pounced on by those who make a lifestyle of trawling craigslist. For most of us, the extra cost of buying new is a worthwhile sacrifice for professional advice, some kind of warranty, and getting what you want instead of whatever happens to be available used.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

My Bikes

I've had quite a few bikes over the years including two from Rivendell, three or four from Surly, a custom from Curt Goodrich, an old Stumpjumper that has been reconfigured numerous times, several 3-speeds, a Brompton, a Redline 29er, a Big Dummy, a Xtracycled, pug-fronted, kid-cranked Santana tandem, and a couple 1970s and 80s road bikes, a garbage-picked Trek Multitrack fixie, and several I'm sure I've forgotten. This time of year I start to scheme about putting together this bike or that bike for this or that purpose. This Winter I've been successful at letting the new-bike fantasies pass, which is helped along by my (hopefully temporary) tight financial circumstances and the past experiences of indulging in these winter flights of fancy. The plan is to stick with three four bikes and my kid-hauler tandem. Here's what they are and why I like them.

Surly Cross-Check: The Surly Cross-Check is possibly the most common single bicycle model that I see in the wild in Minneapolis on a daily basis. I've admired the CC since I first saw a dark metallic green one back in 2004 or so, but at that time I had a Rivendell Atlantis, which is so similar in many aspects to the CC that it didn't make sense to have both. Later the Atlantis was sold, but I still sat on the fence about buying a CC. I knew as soon as I saw it that the 2011 model in Robin Egg Blue with the newly added mid-fork rack mounts was the bike for me. I bought a frameset and transferred parts from my previous fixed-gear onto it. I thought it was perfect right away - neutral handling, not too twitchy or too stable, just right. Since this was to serve as my commuter and light-duty exploration bike, I had to rack it: an economical but excellent Topeak on the back and a not-so-economical but excellent Tubus Duo low-rider on the front. Now I can carry four panniers on frivolous weekend camping trips or even on longer more heavily-loaded tours. Tire clearance is ample for 40 mm tires with fenders, but with lightweight 28 mm or 32 mm tires, it's as close to a "road bike" as I'll ever want. I go back and forth between keeping it geared with a compact double crank and a 12-32 9sp cassette:

And fixed-gear, which I prefer in the winter or for general commuting, around-town use:

On a recent shenanigans-filled excursion, some friends and I took our bikes somewhere where we probably shouldn't have. One wonderful aspect of the CC became apparent as I hoisted, and a couple times threw the bike onto steep bluff embankments I was climbing. I realized that I can abuse this bike, that I don't have to baby it, and it can take everything I do to it. And if I do somehow go too far and break it or it gets stolen or whatever, I can replace the frame or the whole bike at a relatively modest price, but that worst-case scenario seems unlikely. Sometimes people who buy fancier bikes don't think about this limitation: if the bike is too pretty, or too delicate, or too expensive, or too hard to get, it's possible that the rider will limit him/herself to only the most genteel of cycling experiences. And then it's harder to have fun.

Surly Troll: This is the bike I took to Death Valley, and the bike I will likely take on similar adventures in the future. It's everything the Cross-Check is, but stouter and with huger tire clearance. It's my worst-case scenario bike, ready for anything, especially when the quality and/or existence of a road is in question.

Brompton: This is a bike that many cyclists do not understand. First thing to know: it's not a novelty, but a serious bike (despite admittedly unconventional looks). It's a folder that becomes carry-on in 5 seconds, but it rides pretty well, it's rugged, and it can actually handle heavy cargo, with ease. Therefore, it makes the perfect touring bike, especially when incorporated with other forms of transport.
Some like-minded friends and I have unofficially chartered a group called B.A.D.A.S.S. (Brompton And Dahon Adventure and Survival Society). I have a few ideas for B.A.D.A.S.S. "events" that will take advantage of the capabilities unique to folding bikes.

Curt Goodrich: This is my "classic" touring bike and by far my fanciest, most expensive bike (see above about the consequences of fancy, expensive bikes). It actually has big tire clearance, so versatility is greatly improved over that of the actual classic touring bikes from the 1970s and 80s.
goodrich on dirt
mighty steed pre-tour
This bike is actually undergoing some major cosmetic surgery and updating, so it won't look like this anymore. You'll see.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Death Valley, Furnace Creek area exploration

After spending a night at Texas Spring, I chatted with another couple who were cycling in the area. They highly recommended some local attractions around Furnace Creek. This was all the encouragement I needed, and I headed southward to "Artist's Drive", a one-way scenic loop.
These rock piles are a common sight in the Death Valley. I didn't spend a lot of time using my rusty geology skills to determine how they came to exist. In any case, it's yet another of the otherworldly aspects of this place. The Surly Troll seems to fit right in around here.
After riding for a half-hour or so, I turned off the main road along the valley and started heading eastward up the side of the Amargosa range. It was the steepest climb of the trip - instead of meandering and switchbacks, this road was more or less straight up. I took a break to make a movie:

A bit further ahead, I saw a pull-off area, so I stopped for a short hike. The scenery was gorgeous in every direction. And the road started to get more twisty and dippy.

Artist's Drive was scenic along its entire length, but near the top Artist's Palette is clearly the main attraction. The variations in the colors of the rock was like nothing I'd ever seen.

One common plant, not in the valley, but in the slightly higher elevations, was Atriplex hymenelytra, aka "Desert Holly". It looks a lot like the familiar green Christmas Holly, but the leaves vary between white and pale frosty green.

After Artist's Palette, I was treated to one of the most thrilling descents of my life. Once I hit terminal velocity, I found myself negotiating the narrow road through deep, steep-walled rock gorges. I felt like Luke Skywalker flying in one of the grooves on the Death Star, pretending to blast womp rats. Then, just when I was having fun, suddenly I was working my way back uphill. Then again, more fun descending through the canyons. It was about the most fun a person can legally have on a bike. Unfortunately, I was going far too fast, and having too much fun, to make a video of the experience. You'll just have to go there and do it yourself. I'll sell you an appropriate bike.

After Artist's Drive, I headed back to Furnace Creek. I purchased a 24-hr shower and pool pass at Furnace Creek Ranch for $5. This was my first shower since Pahrump, and I got my money's worth out of it (twice). In hindsight, I wish I'd swum in the pool, too. The pool water originated from a hot spring, and even though the air temperature was never actually more than moderately warm, the pool was like bath water. I dangled my feet in it for an hour, but as it was getting late (and chilly), I headed back to buy more food at the general store and another night at Texas Spring.
Once I got situated at the campground, darkness was rapidly approaching as the sun was dipping behind the western mountains. A cyclist entered the campground pulling the most overloaded BOB trailer I've ever seen or imagined. I invited him to share my campsite, and he accepted (hey, free camping!) We chatted for awhile and swapped stories. Paul was riding down from Fairbanks, AK, and had seemingly hit all the high points of the Pacific Coast and all the most famous California State and National Parks. He even went to Mexico, where getting through customs with his bike and trailer as a pedestrian was an ordeal (apparently bikes have to go through the revolving pedestrian door, not through the car lane gates). He was an interesting young man, with a unique view of the world, and plenty of wild stories of smuggled explosives and nearly having his leg amputated from a severe infection. Incidentally, this was his first bike trip. He never even rode a bike as an adult before this trip, but here he was 7,800 miles into it, with apparently none of the usual concerns or self-doubt that plague many would-be bike adventurists. Also of note, one reason his BOB was so overloaded was that he was carrying a large number of substantial books. He said he liked to read, and he didn't trust e-readers.

Wheelbuilding class, Feb 25

This will probably be the last wheelbuilding class until next winter. I'm limiting it to 4 participants. Building and riding your own wheels can be a satisfying experience on its own, provides a valuable home-mechanic skill, and results in excellent quality wheels when done properly.


I will hold the class at the shop Saturday, February 25, 8am-Noon. The registration fee is $60, which is required to reserve your spot on a first-come, first served basis. We will provide step-by-step instruction and a workspace equipped with a truing stand and spoke wrench for you to use during the class. Most people are able to build one wheel during the class, but others try to build a pair of wheels (I can help if you run out of time). You can supply your own rim(s), hub(s), and/or spokes, or you can get those items from HC for a discounted price with class registration. If you don't know which wheel components suit your needs, tastes, and budget, we will help with that, too. Space is limited, so call 612-727-2565 or stop in to register and discuss options for your new wheels.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Christmas in Death Valley

After bedding down in the previously described plantless landscape on Christmas Eve, I commenced my Christmas activity by riding north on West Side Road toward the "city" of Furnace Creek. I hadn't refilled my water since Pahrump, which meant three solid days with only the supplies I had on the bike. On Christmas morning, I still had approximately 2 days worth of water, but I didn't want to cut it too close. Any mishap could have made my 2-day water supply seem less than adequate. And Furnace Creek, 20-some miles off, was the next place to get water. After a few miles, I came to a road sign for a spring, and the vegetation sure seemed lush compared to where I'd been.

I never actually found the spring, but I did get off the bike for a short hike.

As I rode along, the floor of the valley was highly variable:

At this point, I saw a small graded pull-off area adjacent to the road. A red pickup truck was parked there, and a couple was sitting on folding chairs gazing out over Badwater. I stopped to chat. We discussed, among other topics, the unorthodox approach to celebrating Christmas in Death Valley. As they pointed out, wandering the desert looking at stars is actually VERY relevant to the history of Christmas. They suggested I join them for Christmas dinner at the Furnace Creek Inn (after some cursory research, I decided that the $400/night Furnace Creek Inn would be out of my price range). I bid my new friends adieu, and continued toward Furnace Creek.

Soon I was back on pavement.

I was astounded by Furnace Creek. I was fully expecting that the place would have the sidewalks rolled up on the most major holiday of the year, but to the contrary, it was swarming with people, and fully open for business. There was no indication that it was Christmas. The vast majority of my fellow visitors appeared to be of Asian nationality or descent, which, I'm presuming, means they are people who don't share the stereotypical American Christmas traditions. The National Park Visitor Center, a temporary-looking pole building, was my first stop was to check in there and get my $10 permit. The youngster working the front desk suggested I try the Texas Spring campground, on the edge of town. I had been led to expect by various internet readings that camping in Furnace Creek meant RV Parks, so I was skeptical.

I visited the Furnace Creek Cafe for a mediocre, overpriced cheeseburger and fries. I decided that the convenience of the cafe was not worth the cost, and that I'd be better off cooking my own meals with the Trangia. To that end, I walked next door to the convenience store, where I stocked up on overpriced cheese, butter, eggs, and a few other food items I was craving.

After I'd had my fill of big city life, I rode over to Texas Spring campground, which I found to be a pleasing place to camp. The campground host stopped to chat and answer some of my questions. After exploring a bit, I set up camp:

And I enjoyed the luxury of having a picnic table:

As I was cooking, a couple about my age walked over to talk to me. They were from France and cycling around the world. Unfortunately, their tandem frame broke, and they returned it to the manufacturer in Germany for repair. While they awaited the return of their bike, they were driving around in a rental car. I was a little amazed at what must've been a tremendously expensive proposition: sending a tandem to Germany, and renting a car for an extended period of time. Not how I might have handled that situation, what with used top-quality tandems generally available at favorable prices.

As I nodded off in my tent that night, I didn't have a firm plan for the following day. Would I pack up and head further north to Stovepipe Wells or Scotty's Castle? Would I stick around Furnace Creek and take in the local attractions? The north option looked appealing on the maps, but the campground host very gently suggested that I might enjoy exploring Furnace Creek. I didn't lose much sleep contemplating these options.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Pub Crawl 2012

The premier cycling event of the year is upon us. Meet Sunday, January 29 at Noon at The Bulldog NE with a bicycle, your appetite, and a sense of wonderment and adventure. Alternately, we will be leaving HC at 11AM for a ride to The Bulldog. If you're thinking of some reason why you can't do this, please stop thinking that way, rearrange your schedule (you have two weeks notice), and join us. You probably won't regret it, if Pub Crawl history is any indication.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Further into Death Valley, mountains and coyotes and rocks

This is part 3 of my Death Valley tour journal. Scroll down to view previous segments.

After my first night camping in Death Valley National Park at roughly 2200 feet elevation (I found a USGS benchmark near my campsite to confirm the elevation), it was obvious that I would be going downhill to get into Death Valley itself, which is below sea level.
Much to my surprise, I spent my first hour or two that morning going uphill. I topped out at Salsbury Pass, elevation, 3315 ft. I compiled a little video mash-up of my descent (more or less) into Death Valley from Salsbury Pass. What the video doesn't show is that every time I would round a corner or get over a hill, thereby improving my view of the landscape, I was constantly grinning from ear to ear and exclaiming things like, "Wow! Wow! Holy shit! Wow!" The scenery was amazing, though it might look less impressive through the limited frame of reference of my iPhone video camera. I eventually turned off Hwy 178 in favor of exploring the gravel of West Side Road. There were signs at the beginning, warning off anybody who might be inadequately prepared to drive this road. Since I wasn't driving, but pedaling a bicycle, I figured I had nothing to worry about.
I spent the afternoon riding some 20 miles of West Side Road, and only saw one car - the driver seemed surprised to see me out there. Camping along West Side Road is prohibited, but there are a number of "roads" extending west into the Panamint Mountain range, where camping is permitted at least 2 miles from West Side Road. When the time came to make camp, Johnson Canyon Road was the only choice. I wasn't able to ride Johnson Canyon Road because it was extremely rough. It would have been ridable without my 100ish lbs of gear, but even then, it would have been a challenge. So I pushed. I made camp in one of the most torturous physical environments I've seen. The area around Johnson Canyon Road is almost entirely devoid of plantlife. Just rocks. I did see some lizards on one of the bigger rocks, but otherwise, I might as well have been on Mars. At night, I felt like the last man on Earth. Standing outside my tent staring up at millions of stars, only occasionally did I see headlights off in the distance along Hwy 178. Otherwise, I was quite likely the only human being withing 10 miles of that spot. The video I shot Christmas morning sums it up best.

The sunset shining on the Amargosa mountains, with the rest of the valley in the shadow of the Panamint mountains:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Holiday desert excursion, part 2, Pahrump into Death Valley

This post is the second part of a series. The first part is here.

I was pleased to walk out of the motel in Pahrump the next morning to discover the cold winds were gone, replaced by warm sunshine. My mood, which had been lowered a bit by the previous day's challenges, not to mention the casino ambiance, was instantly improved. I very eagerly finished loading my bike, and got back on the road. I opted to take the short way into Death Valley, straight west out of Pahrump toward Shoshone, CA.

I really can't emphasize enough that Death Valley is a valley, which implies that it's surrounded by higher terrain. The lowest point in Death Valley is 282 feet below sea level, but getting there, believe it or not, requires a lot of going uphill. Nonetheless, every time I surmounted a mountainous ridge and began descending, I assumed I was going into Death Valley. I would be proven wrong several times. This was the first:

I believe these were ancient cave dwellings, but since I was so excited (mistakenly) to be dropping down into Death Valley, I opted not to hike in and explore.

Finally, some confirmation!

The little town of Shoshone has a convenience store, gas pumps, a tavern, a cafe, a post office, and a few other conveniences. But, for the services they offer, there isn't much competition:

Any inference that these "next services" represent a substantial center of commerce would be mistaken.
OK, surely THIS means I can start going downhill into Death Valley!

Shortly after entering the park, I started looking for a dirt road where I could camp. The rule on backcountry camping in Death Valley is that one must camp at least 2 miles from a paved road (with some exceptions). I quickly found this dirt road, which is known by various names and is some 48 miles long.

I considered riding this road until its end, but it was made of big rocks and squirrelly sand, and wasn't easy to ride. My first night camping in the park was an estimated 2.0001 miles from the paved road:

Yes, I know I'm now in Death Valley National Park, but I still had to go over more mountains the next day to get to the valley itself. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Holiday desert excursion, day 1 and day 2

I spent the holidays out in the Nevada and California desert. I had a fantastic time, and the trip was exactly the correct medicine for my annual holiday melancholia. The idea to go to Death Valley started back in September during a tour down the gorgeous Oregon coast. I wasn't surprised that the weather along the Oregon coast was somewhat damp and gray, but I was a little surprised that the roads were so crowded with large RVs and trucks. After several days of lane-width-maximized RVs and other vehicles nearly blasting me off the road into the ocean, I was exhausted (no extremely close calls, but still). I decided that I wanted to go somewhere sunny and warm and desolate. For some reason, Death Valley called out to me, even though I knew little about this place except that it's below sea level, dry, and hot. The more research I did, the more I liked the idea. There's no direct way to get to Death Valley. I opted to find a cheap flight to Vegas (shipped my bike UPS to an excellent and helpful local bike shop there), and ride the 120-ish miles into Death Valley.

By the time I got my bike and food and water all together, I didn't get on the road until 2 pm. I spent probably another hour getting out of Vegas sprawl (mostly sidewalk riding) while simultaneously looking for an appropriate fuel for my Trangia stove at various gas stations. While waiting at an intersection, a guy dressed in trendy outdoorsy clothing approached and asked where I am going. I'm always reluctant to divulge many details of my travel plans to people who ask, because they always seem disappointed if I'm not on some "epic" round-the-world adventure. Anyway, I told him I was looking for stove fuel, and he directed me to a nearby REI. I headed to REI, which was farther away than I expected, but they had the fuel I wanted (denatured alcohol) and a nearby road actually had a bike lane heading out of town in the right direction. My opinion of Las Vegas improved immediately, as did the quality of my cycling experience.

The busy-ness and crowded-ness of Vegas falls off quickly on the outskirts of town. Population density was near zero after about 10 miles. I'd been warned that there was a major mountain pass to cross just out of town. I didn't want to get boxed-in on a cold mountain pass after dark, so I started to look for a place to camp in the vicinity of Red Rock Canyon.

This road looked intriguing.

I sat on the hillside and marveled at the strange (to me) desert landscape and watched as the sun quickly sunk below the western mountains. As the air seemed to get chilly immediately after sunset, I had a quick snack and crawled into my tent. In the middle of the night, some very strong winds started to jostle my tent. I was feeling rather cold and under-equipped for the weather. I'm pretty tough, but still wondered if I'd bitten off too much. Anyway, the winds were odd in that they were very intense for 20 minutes, then dead-silent for a similar period of time, then intense again. The next morning was chilly, and the winds were still intermittently ferocious. I snapped a few pictures. First, making breakfast while still in my sleeping bag:

Next, Red Rock Canyon is a beautiful area.

Home sweet home:

Incidentally, while I was taking down my tent, the wind returned and snapped off one of the tent poles. I considered going back to REI, but decided that I could somehow rig up a broken tent to get through the remainder of the trip.
After taking my time waiting for the weather to warm up, I was on my way. I started to notice that I had no frame of reference on slopes. Based on the visual, I guessed I was on flat ground, but was seemingly working too hard to maintain such a low speed. I was out of my element! Only when I looked backwards over my shoulder did I realize that I'd been going uphill for a considerable distance. In fact, I spent most of that day going uphill. At Blue Diamond, NV, there is a small rental mountain bike shop. I stopped in to chat with the guy working there for some local knowledge (he was seemingly not knowledgeable, about anything, local or otherwise). I'd been going uphill all morning (by now it was noon), and he told me, "you're going to feel a lot better when you get over that hill!" He implied that I hadn't reached "the hill" yet. Huh. Shortly thereafter, I knew I was on the hill, and I spent the next couple hours going over it. It was not terribly steep, but it was very long by Minnesota hill standards. Several times I walked my bike, not out of exhaustion, but out of boredom. I saw bighorn sheep. There was snow, and toward the top, the air was considerably colder. Eventually I made it:

I smiled and said to myself, "my &%*$ing troubles are over", but as I began to coast down the other side, I found the insane, tent-breaking headwind again, and it was COLD. I nearly froze to death descending the western edge of the mountain. I worked very hard to get to Pahrump, a town with an economy apparently based on legal brothels, ammo-hoarding, and attempting to reinflate the housing bubble. Pahrump has casinos, and I found the hotel rates at these casinos to be reasonable given the cold, windy weather, and my frayed composure. Thus ended day 2. Stay tuned for day 3, etc, when my adventure continues into in Death Valley National Park.