A Top-Secret Bikepacking Expedition
to the Benevolent Vortex
by Todd Gillman
I got an email invite from a couple Fort Collins, Colorado-based coworkers to join them and a Santa Cruz, California-based mutual friend on a bike tour of sorts. The details were sketchy at best, but the invite list, comprised mostly of New Belgium Brewery coworkers, included some of the most reliable and hilarious adventure companions on the planet. It’s well-known that our brewery has built its brand and reputation on an ethos deeply-rooted in all things bike-related. Subsequently, it’s not a stretch to imagine a handful of beer-loving, bike-obsessed, New Belgium employees rallying around a harebrained, desert adventure to escape the winter doldrums. The proposition was muddled in mystery from the onset, because the trip leader, Covey, only revealed scant details of the itinerary and location of the mission. The following is an excerpt of the invite that stole my attention:
“Getting pretty darn excited for our secret, desert adventure! Six days of daring, intrigue, camaraderie, and RAD! If you’re up for the adventure, trip-specific emails will follow with the packing list, meal arrangements, and code words for secret plans. Warning: this is a Fatbike-only experience… Don’t even think of bringing your scrawny, 2.4” tires! The hope is to have a sag-wagon meeting us at camp each night. My dad is on board, but he may have to bail. Let me know if you think of anyone who would be interested in driving.”Super weird, and right up my alley. A quick check of the Outlook calendar confirmed that the dates, which coincided with both my birthday and Thanksgiving, were more or less free from work obligations. Happy Birthday to me! Never mind that I didn’t own a Fatbike or the bikepacking accoutrements required to pull off an expedition of this sort. Eh, we’d work that out later. The packing and prep lists followed shortly thereafter and were equally entertaining. For example:
- Dusty stems and caps
- 2 gallons of water
- Electrolyte drink mix
After many years of imagining up elaborate escapades into the backcountry, I’ve become a bit lazy in recent years, focusing most of my planning muscle on the many work projects that dominate my time. Unsurprisingly, when a bulletproof plan (one that allows me to sit back and leave the heavy-lifting to a thorough trip leader) is delivered to me like a gift from the heavens, it’s pretty much a no-brainer. What could possibly go wrong?
I jumped on a cheap fare to Vegas for Thanksgiving day, where the Colorado team of JP and The Professor, with my rental bike in tow, would scoop me up just in time for a truck stop, Thanksgiving meal en route to our first night of camping at Red Rock. From there, we’d hit the road and head west to meet up with Covey and his dad in Mammoth Lakes, where the adventure would begin in earnest.
At this point, only Covey and his dad knew the itinerary or had an idea about what the actual ride might be like. We dicked around in Bishop for a bit, securing last-second necessities, such as gallons of extra water poached from a garden hose at a downtown office, and a pellet gun (naturally), and then we rallied into Death Valley National Park, battling an incredibly stiff and disconcerting crosswind on the way. As a Pacific Northwest resident, Death Valley had never been on my radar as a destination for an adventure or vacation, so in the weeks leading up to the trip, I’d spent late nights researching the area, soaking up everything that made it interesting and worthy of National Park Service designation. I also passed countless hours trying to imagine where our “secret” tour might take us. Covey had leaked a vague play-by-play ride route, which included only the need-to-know stats, like mileage and elevation gain. One day in particular looked brutal. Climbing thirty plus miles (more than six thousand feet) of treacherous terrain, all while mounted on expedition-loaded bikes.The rest of the route was more enticing to me, but you have to be willing to suffer a bit to enjoy such spectacular highs.
Once on our bikes, the pre-trip anxiety melted away, and became instead a vast and beautiful high desert landscape. Our minds were free to roam, as our eyes began to absorb the endless, undulating horizon lines formed by the Inyos and the Salines. The ambiguity of the trip would soon reveal itself, beginning with the merging of our car onto a fork in the road, which revealed ragged, uncharted territory — was Covey planning on cycling this beast? Once off the road, we followed a dry arroyo for miles until it pinched down into an incredible twisting, slot canyon known as a “snotch” in bikepacking parlance. The surface was volatile, to say the least. Inconsistent sizes of cobble, soft sand, hard-packed, desert “playa”, tube-popping goathead-studded brush — all conquered by the Fatbikes with graceful agility, while maintaing a ridiculously fast pace. I was quickly becoming a Fatbike believer. We were finally spit out into a broad, sand-covered valley, just as the sun was beginning its descent. The last signs of civilization had disappeared hours ago, and all that remained was white sand and mountains as far as the eye could see. We were still a good ten miles from where we had arranged to meet Covey’s dad in our New Belgium Sprinter van. It felt as if the prospect of dinner and beer was merely a mirage painted on the desert sands, because as we trekked further, we only seemed to reach more sand dunes. We found ourselves in a seemingly endless range of open desert. The event that followed will forever remain one of the most spectacular adventures I’ve ever been on, and certainly the coolest bike ride I’ll probably ever do.
The slog up the dunes was tedious and exhausting, but was made enjoyable by the orange and purple hues of the sky and alpenglow on the barren mountains as the sun dipped below the horizon. By the time we descended the other side and made our way onto the flats, the moon reflected off the sugar-white, desert sand, illuminating our way through sparse creosote bush and the occasional rock. We raced in tight blue angels formation through hard-packed, sand gullies that resembled mini half pipes, extending for miles. We howled like a pack of coyotes, as we smacked off the lip of the gully and did little tail whips the whole way. We kept a fast pace while pedaling without the aid of artificial light, which, it turns out, was all part of the plan. Bright headlamps in a wide open desert could easily draw attention to us and the questionable legality of our endeavor. The moon was bright enough.
We woke the next morning at the foot of the largest set of dunes in California, and shivered in sub-twenty degree temperatures, as we busied ourselves with coffee, breakfast, and shooting beer cans with a pellet gun. The good life, really. Amazingly, within two hours, the sun had warmed the Eureka Valley enough that we were soon in short sleeves. After we saddled up, we began our long climb to Steele Pass, pausing in intervals to peer at the sand that stretched out behind us, and the mountains that seemed to stare back in reverent approval. As we climbed, we made our way through another series of snotches, which eventually gave way to a myriad of Joshua Trees. Covey had been coming to Death Valley with his dad since he was a kid, and had worked a few years as a ranger with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. As a result, he is intimately familiar with the region’s lore and ecosystem. We’d be getting a brief lesson in Death Valley’s archaeology, history, or ecology, only to geek out a moment later over a giant tarantula sauntering across the path. Witnessing the grandeur of our surroundings from the seat of a bike allowed us the time to take it all in. I was fascinated by the abundance of beauty and life that existed in such a seemingly harsh and remote place. Little, tough-as-shit desert dwellers, and an abundance of plant life, have managed to carve out tolerable niches in almost every inch of this inhospitable environment. Summiting Steele Pass was an occasion deserving of a victory dance, and it’s times like these that the well-equipped adventurer will enjoy the best beer of his or her life. Fortunately for us, being well-equipped with a delicious IPA is second nature. After a beer on top of the world, we bombed thousands of feet down the other side of the pass, headlong into another spectacular sunset.
Spotting the New Belgium Sprinter across the desert in the low light was a relief, but as we approached, we were shocked by unmistakable juxtaposition of palm trees silhouetted against the luminous sand. That didn’t seem right — palm trees in the desert? Yet, there they were, clustered, to our amazement, around a series of hot spring pools set against a backdrop of the rugged Inyo Mountains. We’d arrived at Saline Valley. A remote, mystical, and downright bizarre zone that would serve as our base camp for the next several nights. The warm showers and hot pools were magic for our sweaty, sore corpses, and over the length of our stay, we began to absorb the history and embrace the weirdness. The valley had been inhabited by hippies and alternative life-stylers since the 1960’s. They had been the “guardians” of the springs when the Nation Parks Service annexed the valley to the National Park in the early 1990’s. In recent years, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding goings-on in the valley seemed to emerge and be relatively accepted, so long as the regulars do most of the maintenance and don’t cause trouble. Because of this, the park’s whereabouts are something of a mystery to the general public — a success for the returning visitors. The roads are unmaintained and are notorious for chewing up and spitting out city rigs. Signage is nonexistent, which leads to a sense of remoteness and exposure, and keeps the park well out of reach from the average tourist. For us, pedaling our bikes for a couple of days to get to this secret haven made it all the more sweet, which was Covey’s intent from the beginning.
California’s first winter storm of the season had been well predicted, and we had been on the lookout for it as the trip neared, but with some amount of skepticism, because, well, it’s Death Valley and it just doesn’t rain much there. When it finally hit, right in the middle of our expedition, the storm brought several feet of welcomed snow to the parched Sierra, before crossing the Inyos and settling in for a couple of days in Saline Valley. Although a perk for the desert, it successfully crushed our plans for the thirty mile, six thousand foot trek. We contented ourselves with downing beers, shooting the cans, exploring, playing naked whiffle ball, getting to know ALL of the hot pools, and becoming acquainted with most of the trippy drifters and folks who call the place home for part of the year. We were the young dudes that rode our bikes to the valley — the crazy bikes with the bloated tires. We were the dudes with the beer van. Everyone else had a “thing” too. One guy had a collection of rocks for sale. He gave us some cool, local rocks and regaled us with tales from the valley. Another, was a guy in the giant Unimog conversion RV. One gal we referred to as simply “Florida.” Most of them were retired or on their way, and all of them spent the majority of their time in the buff. The love they had for the place was evident. They thought of it as “their” place, and they took care of it as such. At one point, our group sat in a pool, soaking and watching as the work crew, comprised of sunburnt seniors wearing nothing but hats and sandals, dug a trench and replaced a pipe to carry water from the origin of the hot springs to one of the pools.
Clearly, being shut down for days on end by foul weather was not the expedition we had in mind, but the unexpected plot twist yielded opportunities to find entertainment and enlightenment in ways that we hadn’t planned. Our time around the campfire was prolonged, giving us time to indulge in our weirdest stories and worst jokes. On our last day, I’d finally summoned the courage to ask some of the charismatic regulars we’d been getting to know if they’d mind if I shot some portraits of them on my film camera. They all obliged. Later on, I realized that a camera glitch had caused my film not to fully auto-wind back into the canister, and so I unwittingly shot nearly a full roll of images, many of them portraits of Saline Valley locals, on top of an already-exposed roll of film. Brilliant. But in the end, the double-exposures turned out to be kind of analogous to our trip experience as a whole. Completley different from what was planned, yet strangely beautiful in their own way — perfectly trippy, just like the benevolent vortex of weirdness that we found ourselves in.
See more photos from the trip on instagram