Thursday, January 31, 2008

Stage 4 - Furnace Creek to Shoshone

THE ORIGIN OF PEOPLE (Death Valley, California. Shoshoni)
Part 4 - There were two women living at this house, the woman he had followed and her mother. The women were sitting outside their house. They told Coyote to go inside and sit down. When Coyote went in, he saw quivers made of fox skin hanging all over the wall.

Furnace Creek sits amid a brief gap in the Amargosa Range; The Funerals extend to the north and the Black Mountains run to the south terminating at the Ibex Hills. Climbing and descending multiple alluvial fans, the route to Shoshone skirts the base of the Blacks before exiting Death Valley near the ruins at Ashford Mill. Once you climb over the Blacks and make your first crossing of the Ibex Hills, it’s a quick little descent into Greenwater Valley and the Furnace Creek Wash. From there, Shoshone is just a short ride ahead.

It was after four A.M. when I pulled out of the Furnace Creek time station. We probably spent too much time there. Since it had been a long twenty four hours, the brief rest was good for me and for the crew. Almost immediately after getting back on the North Highway the turn onto the Badwater Road marked the beginning of a never ending desert roller ride through the Middle Basin.

Just past Badwater my night began to take on a surreal guise. I don’t recall exactly where I saw the coyote. His large white profile stood just off the road. He turned his head to watch until I was right next to him. From just a few feet to my left, he ran ahead and disappeared into the night. That was my first encounter with Coyote; my Spirit Guide.

I had no concept of the passing of time. I just pedaled. Deep into its last quarter, the waning moon shone brightly amongst the gaps in the black escarpment to the east. A bright planet accompanied the slim crescent in a celestial duet; from my varying perspective riding along the base of the cliffs, I fixed my attention on the display that continually appeared and reappeared.

The predawn glow turned the sky from a milky black to a deep cold blue. Across the valley to the west, first light was the tip of Telescope Peak. As the remainder of the Panamint Range awakened in a cauldron of red, I was struggling to stay awake. My body felt fine. My mind was exhausted.

After Mormon Point, Jaguar pulled up alongside the Thrasher Team while I was getting off the bike. “I’m having trouble staying awake”, I said. Jaguar said that he was sure that I’d feel better when the sun came up. I hoped he was right as I climbed in the van with Desiree and fell into a deep sleep.

Rob virtually yanked me out of the van. “Enough sleep”, he said, “We’ve got to get going”. By that point in the ride, I had learned to trust Rob without question. He told me that I had slept for twenty minutes; he rolled my bike in front of me and said something like, “Get going”. I did what I was told.

I felt renewed as daylight crept across the desert floor.

Pinched between the Owlshead Mountains and the Blacks, Ashford Mill sits in the narrowest part of this end of the valley. The Amargosa River funnels through The Narrows at Ashford Junction. I’m not a geologist, but it appeared to me that the concentrating effect of the narrowed drainage system improved the quantity and the variety of plant species found in the area.

One last glance across the valley at the Confidence Hills and we headed east toward Jubilee Pass. Jubilee Pass is the climb that takes you over the Black Mountains and out of Death Valley. From the top of the pass the view back into the valley is unforgettable.

I don’t think that I stopped at the Jubilee summit. Tucked onto my aerobars I relaxed down the quick little descent to the base of the Salsberry climb. This steady grade up the west flank of the Ibex Hills gave me plenty of time for sightseeing. I was intrigued by Epaulet Peak and Calico Peaks to the north. I searched the top of Salsberry Pass for the Devil; I had heard he lived there. All I saw was Sheephead Mountain.

The easy cruise from Salsberry Pass into Greenwater Valley and across the Furnace Creek Wash just flew by. We rolled onto Highway 127 and picked up a decent tailwind that pushed me into the Shoshone time station at noon.

My spirits were high.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Stage 3 - Trona to Furnace Creek (Rebirth)

The five thousand foot dark-of-night plunge into Death Valley cannot be accurately described. After what I had just been through, the experience pumped life giving adrenaline into my system.

I was using a high power HID light that lit up the road like it was day. Racing down the highway at full speed we blew by rider after rider on the descent; Rob calculated that we hit 55mph. By the time we sped out onto Emigrant Wash, the grade eased slightly and the temperature had risen noticeably. In my biggest gear, I jammed the pedals down all the way past Stovepipe Wells.

From there Highway 190 is slightly downhill across Mesquite Flat and past the Devil’s Cornfield. In the light of day the clumps of arrow weed look like stalks of corn ready for a demon’s harvest. In the pale blue HID lighting, the eerie mounds danced with their own shadows along the road of my rebirth.

Just a quick little hop up to the North Highway and we turned south towards Furnace Creek. After fighting headwinds all day, that turn in the heart of Death Valley was the turning of fate for my 508. I thought about the last time that I was on the North Highway. The previous October I had spent some time suffering on this road. On that night I had felt the full weight of the Funeral Mountains watching me from the east. But this time, I had already done my suffering.

I pumped up my cadence and raced the rest of the way to Time Station 3. The certainty of finishing my 508 had returned.

Stage 3 - Trona to Furnace Creek (Survival)

I have no idea how long sat in the van covered with blankets. The only thing that I remember is Rob telling me that I had a choice to make. He reminded me about the huge investment of time and effort that had brought me to this intersection. “The most expensive double century ever”, he said. The thought of quitting was not in my mind. I just needed time to get myself back together.

I got back on the bike and made a feeble effort to start the climb up Townes Pass. I don’t think that I made it very far before I rolled off the bike again. This time I ended up lying down on the most comfortable patch of gravel that I had ever seen.

Once again, Rob and my wife Desiree saved my life. They dragged my incoherent empty shell back into our van; I think they let me sleep for a few minutes. In my fog, I lost track of the passing of time.

Rest and a few small bites of fresh strawberries must have done some good. Out of the blue I blurted out my first complete sentence. I had been thinking about Rob and what a great crewmember he was. “Why the hell did you decide to become an English professor?” I said. My brain was an old incandescent light flickering on. Finally the electrons were blinking back to life.

Rob must have sensed that the time was right to get me back on my feet. He and Desiree yanked me out and propped me up against the van. Rob handed me my tennis shoes and told me that if I couldn’t ride up Townes Pass, I’d have to walk up. He tried to put my left shoe on my right foot. I protested and switched the shoes to the proper foot. I figured that he was testing my coherency; that flickering light was stabilizing.

I walked for quite a while. On the road ahead I could see the flashing lights of the teams that had passed me. They were a ghostly amber snake flashing up to the stars.

The fresh strawberries and small bites of banana eventually brought me back to life. My light bulb was no longer flickering; but its dull glow was steady and getting stronger. I put on my cycling shoes, got on my bike and rode the rest of the way to the top.

At the top of the pass it was bitter cold. The wind was howling but it did not matter to me at all. I had made it. It was not the way that I had dreamed of making it. But, with the help of Rob and Desiree, I made it. I hugged the Townes Pass Elevation sign and we all celebrated together. I had survived.

Stage 3 - Trona to Furnace Creek (Disaster)

THE ORIGIN OF PEOPLE (Death Valley, California. Shoshoni)
Part 3 - When Coyote got to the other side he found a tree and made himself a bow. He took green stringy stuff from the water, which he put on the back of his bow instead of sinew. He made the bow string of the same thing. Then he found some cane, made arrows, and began to shoot ducks. He took the ducks to the woman's house.

This stage has been the most difficult stage for me to document. It’s difficult because I was incoherent for a large portion of it. It’s further complicated because I have been either unwilling or unable to recall the details of this near race-ending disaster. It seemed like things were going great until I made a huge blunder in the Panamint Valley.

My spirits and my energy level were high as I rolled out of the time station in Trona. The waning glow of the desert sunset held just enough light for me to rail off of the foot of the Slate Range and drop into the Panamint Valley depression. I felt glued to the road on that that descent; I made a high speed pass that I'll never forget. Just before the 6:00 P.M. daylight riding cutoff, the evening sun spread across the valley casting the shadow of the Argus Range on the Panamints to the east. Shortly after my crew hooked me up to the lights, the Panamint Range quickly turned from a soft evening glow to a hard charcoal silhouette against a backdrop of ten billion stars.

Approaching the Trona Wildrose Road, I contemplated the prospect of staying awake for the next thirty hours. My mind was awash with the thought of riding through the night. I considered that caffeine laced Tropical Hammer Gel packs were the logical choice for an all nighter; a mere 100 calories and 25 mg of caffeine each. At that crucial moment in my 508, I neglected to take into account that my stomach already had plenty of calories. I slammed the gel pack and looked ahead to the climb that I had dreamed about for more than three years; Townes Pass is generally considered the crux climb of the Furnace Creek 508.

After I made the turn onto the Panamint Valley Road, my stomach started to feel queasy. The jarring ride through the valley got worse and worse with each passing mile; my queasy stomach got worse with each passing minute. It wasn’t long before I made a panic stop and threw up.

The next choice that I made was probably the most damaging decision that I made during this three year journey. Empting my stomach of the excess calories made me feel good again. My queasy stomach was gone and my reaction was to immediately get back on the bike and ride. That worked for a little while. But as my body burned through my last remaining reserves, my pace slowed and a paralyzing fog filled my head.

Right after the turn onto Highway 190, I think that I fell off my bike. I vaguely remember seeing my bike in the dirt as I shivered myself into the van. I was so cold. I couldn’t put words together to form a sentence.