In the same way that nothing can really prepare you for skiing in -29 degrees Celsius (which we did in Ruka, Finland), nothing can prepare you for riding a motorbike in +48 degrees Celsius. It is not simply a case of being a bit hotter than a normal summer in the UK. Think double the temperature of a nice shorts and t-shirt day. Thankfully the California, Arizona and Nevada deserts are quite dry rather than humid – if it had been humid as well I think I would have confined myself to my air conditioned hotel room and wouldn’t have made it onto the bike much at all.
It was a bit of a shock to the system, really. We’d travelled over a day early in part to get used to the eight hour time difference, knowing it would mean being awake very early in the morning and being ready for bed in the middle of the afternoon. But it also gave us an opportunity to allow our bodies to adjust to the heat and the need for a whole lot more water than we’d drink back home, and to get our heads around the idea of seeking shade at every given moment.
As mentioned in my previous post, our first riding was along the freeway out of LA for about 40 miles. Some of it was a whopping 16 lanes wide (eight each side). Any major roads at home in Lincolnshire are a maximum of four lanes total – most are just two, one going in each direction, and the bulk of Lincolnshire’s road network is narrow country roads. The sheer width of the road was just mind boggling, as was the fact that it was jam packed full of cars, trucks, big rigs and every other kind of vehicle you can thing of: so busy but fast moving. It took a whole lot of concentration to make my way along the road safely, and as a group we were all new to the idea of the kind of group riding expected of us. While the speed of the traffic was not as high as at home, and drivers seemed to have very decent observation skills, when there are so many lanes and junctions leaving the freeway on both sides it gave me an awful lot to think about.
Once we turned off onto ordinary two-lane roads I really settled into it. Almost straight away we saw a couple of dust devils alongside the road – our first taste of dusty desert conditions and a tick on the I want to see list. It was very dry and hot and we were fascinated by all the fire warning signs dotted along the roadside – no fires, no sparks, no smoking. Those signs were regularly dotted about until we reached the much cooler and damper climate of the Pacific coast. Wild fires are a massive problem in this area of the USA, and looking at the incredibly dry landscape and feeling the high heat we could understand why they didn’t want anyone taking any chances with a barbecue.
Riding over the Ortega Highway towards Lake Elsinore we had our first taste of temperature change. You go up over a mountain pass, it cools down, just a little bit, maybe a couple of degrees. You go back down the other side of the mountain, it warms up. As we moved further inland it seemed to be the norm that it cooled down a little bit on the way up, but warmed up a whole lot on the way down.
At around 6,500 feet in the Californian mountains, Mt San Jacinto and Idyllwild were absolutely beautiful. If it had been 25 degrees cooler we could have been in the Scottish Highlands. The road was winding and we enjoyed letting the Harleys lollop their way around the bends all the way to the top, where my ears popped for the first time on the tour. They would do that many more times before we headed home. We rode back down into the valley where those on the bigger bikes (with more electronic gadgetry than our Fat Boy and Heritage Softail) said their thermometers had hit 120 degress Fahrenheit, or 48 Celsius. And boy could we feel it!
Our first National Park of the tour was Joshua Tree National Park. Rather desert-like, this area has high boulders and rock formations, and these little stumpy spikey trees that give the Park its name. We clambered up some boulders – I didn’t get as high as some but motorbike boots are not the most flexible climbing footwear and a couple of the guys were experienced ‘real’ climbers who showed me up somewhat. The area has apparently been created over millions of years by the weather – torrential rain, strong winds and high temperature, and is home to bighorn sheep, rabbits, coyotes and kangaroo rats. No sign of any rain or wind while we were there and whilst we heard the sounds and saw the signs of wildlife nothing came out to say hello. From one of the viewpoints we stopped at we could see right across Coachella Valley to Palm Springs and Mt San Jacinto where we’d been the day before.
As you might expect on a motorcycle tour of the Wild West of America, we rode along quite a long stretch of the old traditional Route 66. The “Main Street of America” or “Mother Road” is one of the original highways within the USA, covering 2,450 miles from Chicago in the north east to Santa Monica in the south west. The section we rode is said by many to be the best bit – starting in Amboy, where we stopped at the famous Roy’s Motel and Café and had our photos taken sat on the road, and finishing in Williams, Arizona. Most of that part of the road is designated a “Historic Route 66” to ensure it doesn’t disappear altogether, and along the way there are lots of sights to be seen taking you back to the old American times. Route 66 is a combination of long straight road just as you imagine, along with winding mountain sections that take you up over ranges and back down into valleys.
It was said a number of times that I’d be way to hot in my full face lid. I tended to agree but explained that safety and the comfort of using my own helmet came first; I had no intentions of using a half helmet. When it actually came to it yes it was very hot putting on my lid and I couldn’t wait to get it off my head each time we stopped, but shutting my visor eliminated what quickly became known as the “hair dryer effect”. The air was hot, very hot, and at 55-65mph in a straight line with no shade to be seen anywhere the breeze felt like I had my hair dryer on its hottest setting pointing straight at my nose from point black range. I obviously won’t admit to how damp my hair was each time I removed my lid – thankfully it dried almost instantly thanks to the lack of moisture in the air – but at least I could breathe without burning the inside of my lungs.
We gave more ticks to things on our I want to see list over the two days we spent on Route 66. There were mile-long trains carrying containers – one even honked their horn, the sound from which seemed to come from the sky and echo all around. There were little clusters of mailboxes at the end of dirt tracks off the side of the road leading up to groups of tin houses and trailers. And of course there were rusty old derelict cars at every roadside stop, just littered about supposedly where they’d been left years ago (or perhaps strategically placed for us tourists). Cool Springs and Hackberry were the best places for these – lots of cars, gas station pumps, advertising signs, an outhouse, and even some animal skulls.
One the main stops on Route 66 was Oatman, a preserved mining town full of original buildings, museums, shops and burros – or donkeys. The donkeys are left over from the Spanish mining days and have been allowed to go wild and roam free. While they are fed by the tourists, they are pretty much left to their own devices apart from that – we saw a suckling foal in the middle of the town, and anyone wanting to get through just had to wait for it to finish and move on. There was a motorcycle museum above one of the shops, and a hotel wall covered in dollar bills. It was quite surreal.
I can’t write a post about the desert and not mention Laughlin and Las Vegas. Both are similar in that they are oases in the hot Nevada desert and have developed around the legalised gambling in the State, but Laughlin is definitely Las Vegas’ poorer cousin when it comes to experience. We could see Laughlin from miles off as we rode down from one of the many mountain ranges in the very hot sun. It has a river and people go there to use their boats and jet-skis, and of course for the gambling. We stayed at the Aquaruis Casino Hotel for one night and found it to be very odd, not our kind of place at all. The large ground floor is almost entirely a casino with a few incredibly busy restaurants around the edge, and was very smoky as it’s legal to smoke in Casinos in Nevada. We couldn’t believe there were people sat on the fruit machines with young children at their feet at 7am!
Las Vegas was so much nicer than Laughlin. Everything was bigger, in fact everything was just huge, and a lot of money has obviously been spent in order to encourage you to spent time on the casino floor. We stayed at the Luxor down at one end of The Strip, and simply couldn’t get over how big it was. There were several theatres, loads of restaurants, a shopping mall – not to mention 1000s of hotel rooms and the vast casino. You could easily spend all your time inside. Ridiculous, really. We wandered up The Strip and had a look in some of the other hotels – New York New York had a roller coaster, the Venetian had a canal complete with gondolas – every hotel had something weird and wonderful about it that made them tourist attractions in themselves.
From Las Vegas we headed out through Pahrump (what a great name for a place) and then onto Death Valley. The Death Valley area is a series of high altitude mountain passes with twisting roads and below sea level valleys with very straight roads. The valleys, including Furnace Creek where we had a short rest stop, are incredibly hot and have the highest recorded temperatures on earth. It was only 41 degrees Celcius when we rode through, so not at the all-time high and not as hot as the day we rode down to Palm Springs, but still very hot. It can apparently regularly reach 50 degrees Celcius. We did the journey in three 50 mile stretches, finding shade (and ice cream) in a couple of general stores in between. It was very sandy at 200 feet below sea level and we saw sand dunes and dried up lakes and rivers – exactly the sort of desert you imagine. On the way out of the valleys we saw some salt flats too which reflected the sky and looked like lakes despite there being no water.
Riding through some of the hottest places on earth in June and July was definitely one element of this trip that will make it unforgettable. One thing that struck me was how different all the desert areas were to each other. The colour of the sand and soil, the shapes of the rocks, the types of tree, the temperature, the wildlife. Across three States – California, Arizona and Nevada – we experienced the highest temperatures we ever had in our lives, drank more water than we thought possible and saw miles and miles of scenery that was simply awe inspiring. Motorcycling allowed us to experience the hottest places on earth in a way no air conditioning could have.
Read the Wild West Series