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.
The only thing limiting our rides is the range of the bikes. With stock fuel tanks, there is no way to go 100 miles. But one destination within our reach is the well-known Racetrack Playa, a dry lakebed with formations of dolomite towering above its rim. Chunks of the rock occasionally break off and tumble onto the dry lake, where they're actually pushed around by the wind when the surface is slick with rainfall. The tracks look like ski-boat wakes frozen in the mud. Unfortunately, thieves have bagged many of the rocks. After a long day, we head back to the motel.
Bikes loaded in the back of the Chevy, at nightfall we tap into its bountiful torque to hightail it out of the valley into the high desert. Our target: the meandering Owens River, which connects a series of high-desert towns including the stoically named Lone Pine and Big Pine. What the drive lacks in drama the scenery makes up for in bucolic bliss. Lined with cottonwoods and cattails, the Owens River is a lazy scene right out of "The Wind in the Willows." The next day, while two of us inflate rafts, the third takes the Silverado far downstream, parks it next to a swinging horseshoe bend, and hightails it back on his bike. The anticipation of some 20 years is palpable as we slide off a grassy bank into the river. Indeed, the first half-hour is great, floating along slowly with the current and watching the magpies, herons, and occasional jumping fish. However, the mosquitoes-and the penetrating desert sun and cramped confines of the rafts-conspire to make three hours seem like days. Finally, the truck appears on the hairpin turn, and we gratefully scramble for the bank.
An afternoon squeezed into a raft makes the steep mountains west of nearby Bishop especially inviting. The next morning, we choose a long trail that stretches far into the craggy mountains across a sparkling snow-fed stream and up to icy Coyote Lake, situated at 10,000 feet in the shadow of the Sierras. After an hour of Frisbee golf utilizing boulders and stumps for holes (sport is where you find it), we notice a funny thing: The little lake basin is gradually filling with smoke from a sizeable forest fire burning somewhere nearby and fanned by the afternoon winds. There's only one way out that we know of, so under a thickening smoke cloud, we chase down the mountain and load the bikes into the Silverado for the last time. We've milked about all we can out of the trip anyway, and the jobs and wives we blew off last week are starting to call us back.