Death Valley Days

We New Yorkers often yearn for a winter getaway in hopes of escaping the freezing temperatures and slushy sidewalks of midtown. Although this winter has been mild compared to recent years, the idea of getting some sun had its appeal. Being a fitness nut, I often opt for a twofer: getting out of Dodge and doing some serious exercise.

Having enjoyed a fabulous week-long bike trip riding across Colorado in early June with Cycle of Life Adventures, I scanned their website in hopes of finding another ride in the southern part of the lower 48 that had a good chance of temperatures hovering above 50. Bingo:  a ride in Death Valley popped up—four days long, affordable, and a good fit with my schedule.

Death Valley 019But with one caveat: grounded for two months by a sports injury, and undergoing intense physical therapy three times a week, I was forbidden by my orthopedist from doing anything more strenuous than walking (and that didn’t mean 5-mile treks, he advised after I informed him I had done several). By the end of January he gave me the green light to ride, so long as I promised not to overdo it. I assured him Death Valley was flat—there would be no hills to speak of to strain my recently healed body part. (Of course, I had neglected to study the ride’s daily routes. It was an error I won’t make again. But I’m ahead of my story).

Bike trip reserved and airline ticket booked, I was all set, until I slipped on the residual ice from that beastly snow storm that dropped 28 inches of heavy powder the end of January, and bruising (if not cracking my tailbone) just three days prior to my departure. I also bumped my head in the fall, but obviously not hard enough to knock sense into my brain—sunny climes beckoned, and it was too late to cancel, so I opted to go anyway, despite being in some pain whenever I either walked too fast or attempted to walk up hill.

Death Valley 001Flying into Las Vegas’s McCarran Airport, Elli Sias and Dennis Hughes, proprietors of Cycle of Life Adventures, picked up our group in a spacious 15-seater van for the two-hour trip to Death Valley. When we arrived at Furnace Creek Lodge in Death Valley National Park around seven that evening, my cohorts headed off to dinner. Having been up since pre-dawn, I settled for a yogurt and a Clementine in my room and crashed, as we were scheduled to pedal at 7:30 the next morning.

Following a hearty breakfast, we rode off into the sunrise, up a gradual incline past a sign that said “100 feet below Sea Level.” I remarked to Dennis that a hill below sea level seemed like an oxymoron. In fact, according to the website, Death Valley is the lowest spot in the country. It’s also the largest national park in the lower 48, with a complex geology and a rich history that includes lost pioneers (some of whom later were found), and the mining of and subsequent commercialization of borax by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, who manufactured the 20 Mule Team Borax that I remember my grandmother adding to Tide detergent in her old wringer washer (and still is marketed today by the Dial Corporation). It also inspired Death Valley Days, one of the longest-running western series to air on television (1952-1970).

Death Valley 007With each turn of my pedals up the incline, my bottom protested, so after five or six miles, I “bumped up” – cycling-ese for riding in the SAG (support and gear) vehicle. I wished I’d included an ice pack along with bike shorts in my luggage, but pain aside, the scenery was phenomenal. High snow-covered mountains in the distance rim the entire park, cliffs and sand dunes of varying hues adorn the foreground, and a white, chalky substance makes up the desert floor, with an occasional sage brush and sprinkles of bright yellow wildflowers. As an old boyfriend in Arizona once told me when I visited from lush Northern California, “When you are in the desert, you change your concept of beauty.” And I did. A byproduct of sitting in the van versus pedaling my bike was the chance to see the stunning vistas that can be missed while focusing on staying upright when climbing steep passes.

Death Valley 020Day two was a ride to Dante’s View, named for either the hell one encounters scaling the 14 percent grade ascent to get there, or the salt flats below that easily can be mistaken for a lake, where the temperature routinely reaches 125 degrees in the hottest months. The flats were formed by minerals washing down from the mountains for millions of years with no place to go, encompassing a spectacular section of the 5,200-square mile National Park. Although I didn’t attempt to pedal the mountain pass, coming down was a breeze, literally, with a light headwind to cool us. I was raring to go the next day.

Although our destination was a peak called Scotty’s Castle, we discovered it was closed due to severe flood damage (don’t be fooled – flash floods in the desert can be dangerous), so we motored up to another peak instead, and then cycled a long descent past marble canyons and sand dunes to an area known as Stovepipe Wells, with all the markings of a Western movie set and boasting a hotel, saloon, and restaurant.

Death Valley 009Our last day comprised a mere 25-mile ride to Artist’s Palette, and though forewarned that there was a serious climb, I threw caution to the wind, and with the impetus of a strong wind at my back, pedaled uphill for the first twelve miles or so. Then my cadence slowed to a slow grind before I finally called uncle and climbed into the van. Pushing up another foot was painful, and the van’s plush seats were inviting. It wasn’t a complicated choice. But after reaching the peak, and being greeted by the magnificent colors that truly smack of a painter’s palette, I was back in the saddle, heading downhill so fast I held on for dear life, praying my brakes would hold. The wind in my face was a welcome antidote to the hot desert sun, but soon it became its own kind of challenge, demanding a downward shift to the same gear one uses to scale the steepest peaks. Go figure—a mechanical engineer I’m not.

Death Valley 023Heading to the airport, we paused for a daylight view of the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, the Pacific Coast Borax Company’s company town. Marta Becket, a somewhat eccentric veteran ballerina who regularly performed at Radio City Music Hall and on Broadway in Showboat (among other productions), serendipitously found herself in Death Valley, decided to stay, established the opera house in 1968, and danced there until 2012. She painted the interior to resemble an audience of fans, and although it never will be confused with the Metropolitan Opera, it’s well worth a visit, if only because it defies logic to be situated in such an otherwise barren spot.

Death Valley 011Death Valley is a series of contrasts—astonishing views, sharply changing temperatures, a dichotomy of terrain, and cloudless blue skies. Elli and Dennis are expert guides and cyclists—and are also amiable, kind, caring, and encouraging. They even purchased a tiny step stool to make it easier for me to climb in and out of the van. I felt like a circus elephant atop the stool, and quipped that I probably had spent more time on it than I did on my bike. Although at times I mused that prudence may have been lacking in my choice to do the bike ride, given my untimely mishap on the ice, four days in this particular paradise was great solace.

Cycle of Life Adventures has another trip starting in Tucson to entice snowbirds, and will also arrange custom trips for groups. I’m already booking another trip with them to ride Old Route 66 later this year. Stay tuned.

Photos by Merry Sheils

About Merry Sheils (24 Articles)
Merry Sheils won the New York Press Club’s Journalism Award for best business writing in 2011 and 2012. As a portfolio manager for private clients, she writes a financial column for as well as features and profiles. She frequently writes economic and capital markets commentary, including white papers, thought leadership pieces and investment reports, for companies and investment managers. Prior to becoming a writer, Merry worked as a senior portfolio manager and investment analyst at BNYMellon and Wilmington Trust Company (now M&T Bank). A SUNY graduate with a degree in finance, she is the author of “Debt-Based Securities” and has been published in The Financial Times, Forbes and Chief Executive Magazine, and has appeared as a guest on CNBC. She founded First New York Equity, Incorporated, an investment advisory firm, and sold it to Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). She divides her time between New York City and her 18th century house in Columbia County, NY, where she is active in the North Chatham Free Library, the Old Chatham Hunt Club and the Columbia County Historical Society.