Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

Bat Country

Another flight into Las Vegas via the usual route over southern Utah. I won’t be heading there this time, however. Once I land in Vegas I’m heading west, destination: Badwater, the lowest and hottest spot on the continent, right in the heart of Death Valley. One of the few paved roads in the park skirts the eastern edge of the usually mostly dry lake bed at the bottom of the valley with a large parking area near one of the few spots that has water, albeit a tiny pond of salty brine. Despite the sign on the boardwalk proclaiming this geographical extreme the actual low point is a few miles out to the west across the dry salt flats, a location I passed much closer to when I was out here last winter, but there are no paved roads on that side of the valley so this puddle called Badwater is its designated proxy.

It was “only” 110 degrees (it regularly tops 120 here in the summer) but that is enough. Opening the helmet visor feels like opening the door of an oven and peering in. Even with heavy bike armor on the wind chill can normally be relied upon to keep the temperature under control, as long as you’re moving with some speed at least. Not here though, when the temperature gets this hot the wind chill becomes just more hot air to deal with. It was a windy day as well and the dunes at the north end of Death Valley were throwing out a sandstorm across the road, no choice but to ride completely buttoned up.

This trip is off to a bit of a bad start, I noticed that one of the front fork seals is leaking as I crossed the California border, nothing I can do about it now so it will have to wait until I get back. A few seconds after taking the obligatory picture of the bike at Badwater with the “Sea Level” sign perched high up on a cliff behind it an enormous gust of wind completely flipped the bike over to the high side. Damage assessment: turn signal shattered, side case mounting bracket severely bent, side case warped, battery acid leak on the paint. Fortunately no mechanical damage. A few hours later the side mirror fell off as soon as I got off the pavement, chalk that up to the drop as well. And the final bit of bad luck of the evening, just after sundown a rabbit darted out of the bushes and straight under the tire, I circled back but he never had a chance.

The rabbit that I hit was the first one that I saw but I’m a bit surprised, both that I didn’t see any others before him and that I didn’t hit any other rabbits. Within minutes they were everywhere, the sides of the road were alive with hundreds of little red eyes like highway reflectors that would dart out across the road or sometimes straight down it, trying desperately to outrun the 2 wheeled monster coming at them. I spent miles beeping the horn trying to scare them out of the road, I would have sounded like a mad man had anyone else been out there to witness it. Out beyond the red eyes there were blue eyes, much higher off the ground, more wary, never near the roadside, usually moving further away. WIld burros? Deer? Coyote out hunting for their dinner? I never saw one close enough to tell. Occasionally I would pass an actual highway reflector, terrified at yet another “eye” so tall, so close to the road, and not running away. The bats were out as well, hunting their dinner, chasing moths erratically through my headlight beam. I ended up with quite a few moths on my visor but managed to dodge all of the bats (sometimes just barely). The big birds were lurking too, up in the trees along the road, swooping down and away as I passed, not much more than dark shadows against the sky. Death Valley comes alive at night.

My destination for the evening was Mahogany Flat, high up in the Panamint Range at 8,600 feet between Death and Panamint Valleys. The temperatures are much more reasonable at these elevations. Small trees grow and provide shade unlike down on the valley floor and cool gusts of wind bring refreshment. During the day the heat waves are visible against the other mountain ranges, convecting up off the valley floor and baking everything below. The moon came up shortly after I arrived at my camp site, glowing pumpkin orange through the haze of all the sand that had been kicked up off the valley floor. The bright summer milky way shining up above in clearer skies.Air to Air - gallerySea Level - galleryBadwater - galleryMoonrise - galleryClouds - galleryStarlight - gallery