There are times you just have to bust loose. For my friends and me, this involves trucks, dirt bikes, and heading precisely where everybody else isn't. In Southern California this means a trip to Death Valley, a place that can be dauntingly grim. However, during the winter months it's a magnet for tourists. But catch it on the cusp, those few weeks between the blazing summer and the hospitable winter, and you've got the place to yourself.
Our main source of transportation is a 2WD Silverado 1500 Crew Cab LS. It's a great choice, since my friends and I intend to fill the bed with dirt bikes for our off-road fix. Plus, the truck has GM's thrifty Vortec 5300 V-8, a long-legged 3.23:1 axle, a big 26-gallon tank for maximum range, and a locking differential. But most important is space. Three six-foot guys and their dirt-bike gear, a week's worth of clothes, and a couple of river rafts demand real packing room. One thing about long-wheelbase pickups-the ride is nice when fully loaded.
On a foggy Sunday morning, the big Silverado sweeps out of L.A. toward the high desert, hauling in and spitting out stucco-coated commuter towns along the way. We pass through California City, which borders a vast mosaic of undeveloped lots and rough-cut dirt streets. This nascent desert town has remained just that for decades. Blame it on its distance from L.A. or lack of expansion at nearby military bases, but land is cheap around here.
There's a dirt-bike riding area nearby, but its density of users and patrol agents takes the fun out of it. Instead, we head straight into Death Valley National Park, a federally operated zone that's rife with regulation. But during early fall there's little traffic here, and you can run dual-sport bikes to your heart's content-as long as they're street licensed and you stay on the existing trails. Some of the trails are plenty entertaining: There are old mining tracks wiggling up the alluvial fans of desert detritus until they're so faint and so rocky they're hard to follow. Up one, we spot a roadrunner near an abandoned miner's cabin posted with warnings for lethal hantavirus. (It is Death Valley, after all.) But, as a consolation, there's absolutely no one around.
In time, a daily ritual sorts itself out: Breakfast in the motel room, gas the bikes from jerry cans, pick a point on the map, and go. The licensed bikes expand our operating sphere and provide freedom and enjoyment beyond what capable, but illegal, motocrossers would have.