Hallucinating motorcyclist in desert (Dreamstime)
Blog Words : From the Road | 20 November

How a Death Valley diner saved my life

Caught out by deadly heat motorcycling through the Mojave Desert, Stephen Starling and his mates find salvation in the unlikeliest of places

Wearily I hump a heavy kit bag across the parking lot to my mud-splattered Harley-Davidson Road King. Three weeks on the road riding 4,500 miles across nine states through blizzards, deluges, and stand-storms have taken their toll. I yearn to reach the coast to chill out on a California beach, but one obstacle stands in my way – the Mojave Desert, 50,000 square miles of rock and sand baked to 100 degrees by a relentless Nevada sun.

“G’day Peter, Jim.”

My half-hearted attempt at a cheery good morning is greeted by grunts and nods. None of us are in good shape. Three nights (and early mornings) of partying along the Las Vegas strip has left everyone feeling seedy and hungover. Not the best preparation for a long day in the saddle.

Motorcyclist in the Mojave desert (Dreamstime)

Motorcyclist in the Mojave Desert (Dreamstime)

Our three Harleys rumble out of town onto the Interstate 15 bound for San Diego. Past Primm, the interstate starts to climb to Mountain Pass where, on a high plateau, the Mojave Desert awaits. A desolate landscape of ruddy sand, rust-colored rocks and black boulders stretches out towards a shimmering horizon. 

Dunes of drifting sand form waves beside the road. In the distance, quivering in the heat haze, dark ridges sweep up from the desert floor. Their peaks once sharp and solid now lie broken into banks of boulders, split by extreme winter frost then shattered by intense summer sun. The black ribbon of road reaching out before us appears to be the only thing of permanence in this fractured and shifting wasteland.

The sun rises; the road reflects its heat. The air is dry; it robs my lungs of moisture. Even through dark glasses the glare is sharp; it reflects off oncoming cars to lance into my eyes. It is still early morning, yet already over ninety degrees. I am unprepared for this heat: only days ago I was riding through snowstorms in five degrees below.

Ninety miles to Baker, then seventy to Barstow, and seventy more to San Bernardino – over 200 miles to travel across the sweltering high plateau. After only forty miles, I am already feeling the heat. Pulling over, I shed a sweatshirt and zip the liner out of my riding jacket to allow air to flow through the mesh fabric to cool my skin. Back in the saddle, air streams through the jacket, but it is too hot to provide any cooling.

The desert extends in all directions; hot, harsh, and uninhabitable. The Harley below me is running hot too, radiating heat onto my legs that feel like chicken thighs on a rotisserie. The accumulated effects of the blazing sun, dry air, and a roasting engine are becoming uncomfortable.

Furnace Creek. Dead ahead (Dreamstime)

Furnace Creek. Dead ahead (Dreamstime)

At the Baker turnoff to Death Valley, we stop in the welcome shade of a gas station canopy to buy fuel.

“God it’s hot: hotter than the Nullarbor back home in Aussie,” says Jim.

“Are we going through Death Valley?” Peter asks with a concerned look on his sweaty face.

“No way,” replies Jim.

I agree: it is an easy decision to abandon our planned route through one of the hottest places on the planet. Down in Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level, a temperature of 134 degrees was recorded at Furnace Creek. Today, down there it will be over 115 in the shade, and there isn’t any shade. We will detour around Death Valley and keep riding to the coast.

“Let’s grab a quick drink then keep moving,” I suggest, slapping on another layer of sunscreen. 

As miles pass under the wheels, the sun climbs higher in the sky. Its burning rays ricochet off the rocks and rebound from the scorching sands. It is harsh, oppressive, and becoming unbearable. The baking earth sends up eddies of hot air twisting into thermals to form mini tornados of swirling sand that shower my bike like buckshot. 

Death Valley, USA (Dreamstime)

Death Valley, USA (Dreamstime)

Out on this high plateau the heat is so intense it is melting the road. Bitumen oozes up from below the surface. The tires of passing traffic are extruding the edge of the road, squeezing out tar that spreads onto the sandy verge. A white line painted along the edge that was once straight now meanders on the displaced tar as if painted by a drunk.

This is no place to dawdle, or worse, break down. There is no refuge from the oppressive heat – no settlement, no gas station, no shady tree to shelter from the merciless sun. Out here on this isolated interstate, we are totally exposed, on our own, and at risk.

Another hour and I know we have been in the desert too long. The heat has gone beyond unbearable, it is now becoming downright dangerous. My eyes ache, my head thumps, and profuse sweating is sapping my energy. Finding it hard to concentrate, I am surely on the slippery slope towards dehydration and heat stroke. A dangerous state to be in traveling at 90 miles an hour on a Harley, where one moment’s loss of concentration will certainly lead to disaster.

A roadside sign displays ‘Peggy Sue’s Diner – 5 Miles’. Heaven-sent relief is just down the road.

Pulling into the parking lot, it seems I have not only travelled five miles down the road, but also five decades back in time as Peggy Sue’s is an authentic diner from the age of Rock n’ Roll. The entrance is styled as a jukebox with arches of shining chrome and gaudy plastic covers. In the foyer, life-sized statues of Elvis Presley with pelvis flexed, and Marilyn Monroe with skirt billowing, set the scene. Inside, vinyl records are stuck to the ceiling, pop posters plaster the walls, and female servers  wear flared dresses, starched aprons, and those checkered red-and-white headscarves that look like a folded table napkin.

We embrace the air-conditioning, then barely pause to notice the décor before walking stiffly to a restroom where we splash cold water onto scorched skin and scratchy eyes.

“An oasis in the desert,” declares Jim, wallowing in a sink full of water.

Wetting my aching head sloshes water down my shirt, but it is already soaked in sweat so I don’t worry: I desperately need to cool down. Slowly my temperature stops climbing, pulse slows, and overwhelmed senses return to normal. 

Typical diner fare (Dreamstime)

Typical diner fare (Dreamstime) 

Returning to the diner, I down two pints of iced tea while waiting for my order. The meal that arrives could have come from the 1950s too. A burger and fries nestle on a red and white paper napkin in a wicker basket. The thick, hand-pressed patty is pure lean ground beef – not some manufactured composite of cereal, starch, and meat extract. The fries are real too – random cuts of potato still with the texture and taste of a vegetable fresh from the earth. Sinking my teeth into the soft, toasted bun, I appreciate how much flavor we have sacrificed to satisfy our impatience for fast food.

Hunger sated, body rehydrated, and core temperature back to normal, I feel ready to face the furnace again. Riding back into the desert, a hot wind still blows holding the temperature over 100 degrees under the unrelenting glare of an afternoon sun. Fortunately, within a few miles, the interstate leaves the arid high plateau to wind down a narrow fertile gully where shade and humidity provide some relief from the heat.

Eighty miles on, past San Bernardino at Escondido, I catch a first whiff of moist sea air. Sniffing the salt, I visualize foaming white surf rolling towards an arc of golden sand while sea birds circle above on a cool ocean breeze. I lean back in the saddle, click on the cruise control, happily leaving the hellish torment of the Mojave Desert behind as I roll on down to the coast to chill out on a Californian beach.

Stephen W. Starling is an author, photographer and motorcycle enthusiast. You can find more information about his epic ride across America and his book, Three Harleys, Three Aussies, One American Dream on his website, StephenWStarling.com

Main image: Hallucinating motorcyclist in desert (Dreamstime)