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TO HELL AND BACK, Part 2
Death Valley California, United States 5 Jun 10
Odometer 61,000 m 98,170 km

The dictionary claims that a glutton for punishment is a person with an inordinate capacity to withstand something. Hmm... could be, but that almost sounds honorable. “A fool” might be a more succinct definition.


I returned to Death Valley in summer to make a statement. I wanted to prove that come hell or high water El Viento and I could withstand whatever the devil threw at us. And though by evidence of this post we survived, it wasn’t by much, and it wasn’t very pretty.

I last rode into the Valley back in late
March, when spring temperatures were already on the rise. I knew summertime would be even hotter--much hotter. I also knew that I would have no car, camper, hotel, or conditioned space to retreat to. And finally, I knew that El Viento’s cooling system would likely be taxed beyond its limit. Nevertheless, I committed foolish mistake number one, and jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Breaching the park boundary relatively early in the day, the air temperature was already a blistering 116-degrees Fahrenheit (47 C). By the time I rode into Furnace Creek, the ranger station’s
shaded thermometer read a mind-baking 120-degrees F (49 C)! Now, in case you’re wondering what it feels like to ride a motorcycle through these temperatures, imagine Dante himself pushing your eyeballs into the back of your skull--with his thumbs.
thermostat
Air temperature thermometer (lower center, white face) on El Viento's dash reads 116-degrees F, upon entering Death Valley National Park.
The national park was nearly deserted. The campgrounds were shut down and the colorful spring wildflowers had long since withered. The lonely park staff quickly admonished me to remain indoors and not even consider trying to camp in these conditions. I in turn began to explain that I was an old desert rat, that I could take the heat, and that they needn’t…

The ranger interrupted: “Sir, we
strongly recommend that you leave the park immediately!”

Committing foolish mistake number two, I shrugged off his warning. I then suited up in my black body armor and searched for a suitable campsite.


It was hot. Man, was it hot. OK, let’s quit pussyfooting around:
it was hotter than hell!

In fact, I theorized that to the human body, each degree of temperature above our 98.6-degree core has a logarithmic affect on our ability to cope with it. In other words,
each degree over 98.6 feels at least 2x hotter than the degree of heat that precedes it, making it exponentially more difficult to stave off dehydration, heat stroke--even death.

The stagnant air sizzled like cooking oil on a hot griddle.

Evening brought no relief. The rocky ground was so hot to the touch I feared it would melt the nylon floor of my tent. A sleeping bag was unnecessary, even counter-productive. The stagnant air sizzled like cooking oil on a hot griddle.

Fortunately, I was able to tank up my water bottles back at the ranger station. Though the water in them now nearly boiled, making it more nauseating than refreshing, at least it was fluid. I lined them up beside me, knowing my sweat-loss would have to be replaced throughout the night.

Fatigue forced me to try and get some sleep, but first I had to insulate my body from the scorching soil beneath it. Initially, I lay on the ground whatever I had that was more or less flat: my riding and rainwear, a magazine and some maps, my clothes and computer case. On top of this hodgepodge I placed my thin, inflatable sleeping pad. Finally, I stripped buck naked, laid down and prayed for a breeze.

Minutes crept by like hours.

I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stay awake. I couldn’t stay hydrated. And I couldn’t keep those pesky 747’s out of my ears!

Yes, life springs eternal--even here--where the tiniest of creatures has figured out how to survive. They were smaller than no-see-ums, yet louder than jetliners. They buzzed and burrowed into my open ears as though flying in and out of O’Hare at Christmas, their diminutive size outscaled by the misery they inflicted.

The night was young, making what lay ahead feel like eternal damnation. There was nothing to do but suffer in Hades, stare up at the heavens, and search my soul for answers. Where did I go wrong? What did I do to deserve this? Was I really that bad, or foolish, or both?
gps
Globe
GPS
My Image
park thermometer
Like most sinners, I quickly concluded that my pain was self-inflicted. I had gotten myself into this mess, and if I repent, I might yet get myself out.

Given my proximity to the devil’s playground, angels weren’t likely to rescue me anytime soon. I had to sharpen my pitchfork and beat the beast at his own game. I had to ask: what would MacGyver do?


Ironically, I was carrying an assortment of cold-weather gear, as this leg of the trip’s ultimate destination is Alaska. Included in that gear is a silk sleeping bag liner that I occasionally use to bolster the warmth of my goose down bag. Could that liner somehow be turned into an evaporative cooler and bug protector, I wondered? There was only one way to find out.

My largest bladder holds more than a gallon of water and is equipped with a flexible hose and perforated showerhead. If I hung it like a hospital IV from El Viento’s handlebars, I could crawl into the silk liner atop my makeshift bed and periodically spray the fabric with a small amount of water. As the water evaporates, it should draw off excess heat much like a swamp cooler, while the silk keeps the bugs at bay.

It worked--beautifully so--actually allowing me to sleep for 20-minutes at a stretch before being forced awake to apply more coolant. It was a gift from God, a token of redemption.
theromstat
Death Valley's extreme heat melted El Viento's water pump and blew apart her thermostat, requiring major, costly repairs. Here, Jeremiah holds what remains of the disemboweled thermostat.
By the time the first hint of sunlight appeared in the eastern sky, the air temperature had dropped to a relatively brisk 98-degrees F (37 C). I knew from this point on it would only get hotter, so I broke camp and prepared to seek refuge to the west, in the high Sierras.
keep_cool
Cold mountain streams danced through my sunstruck head as El Viento and I began our ascent. With parched throat and cracked lips, I wondered aloud within my helmet what purpose my journey to hell and back had served. The answer, call it divine revelation, was poignant: I don’t ever want to end up in a place like this. Not in this life. Not in the next.
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