North Pass Bike Ride
Below is a long story about my bike ride of the Saline Valley Road between the
Death Valley Road and North Pass. It was intended to be part of a longer story
covering our whole trip, but I never got to finish the whole report. Consequently,
some of the landmark references are a bit vague. This was our first trip to
the area, so my knowledge of the geography was lacking. I have edited to fill in
the blanks a bit. About a year and a half prior to this trip, my friend, Gary,
suffered a compound open fracture of the femur, and had lost all nerves in his lower
leg and foot (a 'drop-foot' condition).
The story starts the morning after our first night camped in a beautiful pinyon
forest at North Pass, on the north end of Saline Valley...
Monday, December 28th, 1998
We awoke to a clear, crisp morning with marvelous blue skies, luminous golden
grass, deep green pinions, and patches of snow to highlight the scene. After
another leisurely breakfast, we decided to camp here again tonight. As Gary
prepared to feed his dogs, he noticed that one of the two doggie dishes was
"We must have left it at the mines yesterday!!" he said. "Can we go back and
"Well, I wanted to go for a bike ride today, so I'll stop and grab it on my
I put my bike together, slowly so as to absorb as much morning sunlight as
possible. I munched a final snack, made sure my water bottles were full, then
headed down the road.
Traveling the Saline road on a bicycle was quite an experience. On this upper
section of the road, the rocks were harsh and almost unavoidable. Some relief
could be had by closely following the edge of the road, just inches from the
embankment, which was composed mostly of rocks.
The scenery improved as the road did when I entered a broad grassy plain
[Whippoorwill Flat] not far from camp. About half way across this flat, I
turned west on a spur road to investigate. The road wound through the forest,
passing beautiful campsites and meadows along the way. I passed by a concrete
cistern with a catch basin on top. This was a strange thing to see so deep in
the desert. I made a mental note of where it was. It's good to know there is
water up here.
I reached the end of the spur road at a trailhead for an Inyo Mountains
Wilderness trail [leading to Waucoba Mountain]. I parked the bike and had a
mid morning snack. The views to the east were opening up. I could see what I
imagined were the Last Chance Mountains on the border of Death Valley. After
a while I got the itch to keep riding, so off I went.
I returned to the Saline road and continued north. I passed several vehicles
late in the morning, all coming up the hill toward North Pass. Then the road
dove into the shale canyon [Opal Canyon] and headed northeast. Along this
stretch, I noticed a vehicle behind me, moving fast. I decided to move FASTER,
so I let go the brakes. It was a jarring downhill run, but in a few minutes I
had handily lost the vehicle and was speeding toward the low point of the road
near the mines. At the bottom of the hill I stopped to take a breather. As I
stood there, the vehicle passed. I waved 'hi' in a friendly fashion, but the
driver just looked away sneeringly. I guess he was put off by the fact I could
outrun his Jeep Cherokee.
Continuing my journey, I turned up the main canyon [Marble Canyon] and headed
northwest. Presently I was at the mines, and had no trouble locating the doggie
dish. I stashed it behind a bush and continued to ride uphill.
Climbing the switchbacks out of this canyon was a bit of a strain, but I met
some friendly desert rats on their way in to Saline. One guy looked the part so
much I though that when he opened his mouth to speak I would hear Gabby Hayes
As I entered the broad upper canyon I heard a faint roar of airplane noise. I
stopped and listened for a moment as the noise became louder quickly. To my
amazement, a plane came ripping through a high pass straight ahead, then skimmed
the base of the mountains to my right (east), passing by within ¼ mile. This
close fly-by gave me barely enough time to identify it as one of my favorites,
the F-18 Hornet. A second plane entered the pass and followed closely and more
precisely the same path. As he neared, I waved my arms frantically. I think he
saw me, because he did a maneuver that was somewhat wave-like.
The next stretch of road went by quickly. I passed through the broad upper
canyon, and then the 'pass' into the beautiful grassy sink [the upper end of
Cowhorn Valley]. I traversed the floor of the sink slowly, taking in the scene.
The sea of grass was undulating in the wind like a surface of liquid gold.
Across the plain was the climb I had been anticipating all day. There was a
steep grade with a less steep bypass on the right. I took the bypass and gained
the top of the ridge where the road continued north. The climbing continued
gradually. The road climbed steeply for a few hundred feet, then leveled off,
then repeated the climb-then-level pattern for a couple more miles.
Finally I reached the high plateau where the Saline road meets the Death Valley
road from Big Pine. The Sierra Nevada was a sparkling backlit edge beyond which
nothing but sky could be seen. Between my location and the Sierra was the
immense gulf of the Owens Valley. I walked the bike up a sage covered hill and
sat in the middle of this wonderful high vista, eating a sparse lunch of Cliff
bar, nuts and berries, and a little turkey jerky.
The sun was nearing the jagged horizon in the west, so I packed up and prepared
for the return ride. Before I started the return, I took a short jaunt up the
Death Valley Road to where I could see into parts of the Eureka Valley. The
view was limited but very impressive. The chill of evening convinced me it was
time to go, so I returned to the Saline Road and began my long descent.
The descent was relatively mellow at first, but became gradually steeper and
rougher. I held on as the washboard tried to buck me from my bike. After a
short but memorable descent, I found myself lolling across the flat, wishing I
had more time to explore the 'Basin of the Golden Grass' stretching away to the
east. The thought that I'm likely to be riding hours after dark regardless of
how many stops I make shocks me back into movement. The winter darkness brings
biting cold in the desert.
As I descended the switchbacks into Marble Canyon, I remembered my other mission
objective - fetch the doggie dish from the mine! I reached the mine and packed
the bowl into my pack, then took a snack break. At this point, I was about
halfway back to camp, but ahead was the uphill half.
The evening shadows were slinking across the canyon as I continued toward North
Pass. As I slowly climbed out of the canyon and entered the pinion forest, the
twilight deepened. I was passing through a land of illusory shadows and false
colors. The stars began to show, the sky a regal purple. The bird sounds of
evening began to fade.
I took a break and sat on an embankment to eat a food bar. The sound of
trickling water was barely audible. The gully below me contained a faint thread
of snowmelt that would probably be gone next week. I continued to ride through
the evening, and soon a vehicle overtook me from behind. The driver stopped and
asked if everything was OK. I said, "Yes, thanks!" but I desperately wanted to
lie and hitch a ride in his van just to end the grueling uphill on rough terrain
in the dark. We bid each other farewell and continued on our respective courses
through the crisp night.
Eventually I reached the broad grassy flat [Whippoorwill Flat] below North Pass.
I sat behind an embankment, hiding from the wind. As I ate a snack I began to
feel the isolation and silence. I really was a long way from other people, and
not likely to see anyone else until I returned to camp, where only Gary and his
dogs were waiting. I finished my food bar and sat in the silence for a while.
Then I thought I heard a dog bark…and Gary's voice. He must have walked down the
road to meet me on the way up! Wow, good to have some company. I whistled into
the gloom but got no reply. Again, I whistled with a conspicuously human tune,
but still nothing. I peered into the darkness for some time, listening
intently, but there was nothing. It was an auditory hallucination. Drat!!
I climbed back on the bike and continued up the road. Now and then I'd hit a
sand trap in the darkness and nearly fall over. Once I was off the flat and
climbing again the road became solid again, but also rough and rocky. The
pinions became larger and denser, increasing the darkness around me. After
climbing for a while, I began to pay back the debt incurred by starting a ride
in the downhill direction. This last hill climb seemed to drag on unduly.
I was becoming less skeptical of my hallucinations. A persistent illusion was
taunting me, an apparent faint glow of firelight on the trees at the top of the
pass. I would almost be sure it was there when it would fade and again I would
see nothing but darkness. At last I reached the spur road leading to our camp.
I started up the road and within a few minutes I could see flickers of firelight
playing on the trees ahead…for real this time. Then I heard Gary's voice, and a
dog bark! Closer still and I could see my white pickup truck gleaming with
starlight on one side and firelight on the other.
Gary was glad to see me. In his condition, with one crippled foot, driving a
stick-shift vehicle would be difficult, so if I got lost he would have a very
hard time searching for me. We sat by the fire and ate dinner, then relaxed and
talked and joked for a while. I was very tired and soon headed for the sack,
happy to be on my way to a good night's sleep.
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