Prepared To Get Lost
DESERT MOON SHINE
In Death Valley, California
Words by Jonny Cazzola
Photography by Kevin Pak & Jonny Cazzola
THERE IS NOTHING MORE SOUL ENRICHING THAN THE UNPREDICTABLE HAPPENINGS THAT OCCUR WHILE ON A LAST MINUTE, ILL PLANNED MOTORCYCLE ADVENTURE. THIS PARTICULAR ADVENTURE FOUND 4 NEW FRIENDS RIDING INTO DEATH VALLEY, CALIFORNIA, SHARING HOMEMADE MOONSHINE AND DANCING IN A DERELICT GHOST TOWN, WHILE AN AMATEUR MINING ENTHUSIAST/PART TIME DJ PUMPS OUT SONGS UNTIL THE EARLY HOURS OF THE MORNING, THROUGH A CONVERTED 1940’S TELEVISION ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM.
One of the best things about working in the motorcycle industry is the connection it creates between so many truly passionate people, all hell bent on creating a plethora of weird and wonderful things. Being UK based, we rarely get to spend much time with our international partners, so finding myself in Los Angeles last December, naturally I reached out to see if Kevin Pak, Art Director at British Customs and his team were up for putting their bikes and our kit to a field test.
On the Thursday afternoon in early November, Kevin and I met out at their Gardena workshop to test load the kit, plan the route in more detail and familiarise ourselves with 2 of the newly completed BC bikes we’d be taking on the trip. One of the bikes, a custom 2011 Triumph Thruxton, built to looks like a pretty mean street tracker and the other was my personal favourite – 2016 Triumph Street Twin, with the high front mudguard, 2 into 1 exhaust and retro styled parts, making it look like a modern desert racer.
With the sun setting at around 4:30pm that time of year, we wanted to plan the adventure so we wouldn’t get caught out riding late into the night on unknown roads. We also wanted to make sure that we had enough time to explore any fun looking trails along the way and get to each nights’ camp with enough light to set up for the evening.
After a bit of route planning, Kevin then took me on a night time tour of downtown LA, showing me some of his favourite areas. It was amazing to see the grittier, behind the scenes side of Los Angeles. There were rats everywhere, people appearing and reappearing out of the shadows of the seemingly endless warren of tight back streets every time we stopped to take a picture. At one point we slowly rolled past a huge fire that had caught a blaze from a homeless shelter, flames so high it reached and caused a closure to the busy freeway above. Now this is my cup of tea and a welcome break from the busy, multi lane, death-trap-freeways we’d spent the last few days traveling around California on.
On Friday morning I picked up one of the new Triumph 1200’s, my friend Mark from ‘LA Moto’ very kindly pulled some strings and found one I could use for the weekend. Then we rode over to the meet place in Highland Park where Eric Bach and his beautiful, slightly older custom desert-racer style Triumph Scrambler lives. Finally it felt like it was all coming together – good weather, good people and 3 fun looking bikes to play with.
We set off at around 2pm after last minute preparations. It was already quite late in the day, but we really wanted to take the scenic route through the Angeles National Forest, consisting of around 75 miles of winding mountain roads, so we headed slowly north towards our first destination – a small camp site approximately 240 miles north of LA, at the south western entrance to the Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley was given its name after a group of pioneers got lost there in the winter of 1849. They eventually made it out, but only after losing one of their team and on leaving they said “goodbye Death Valley” which remained the park’s name and part of its history.
It was December, so the night was drawing in pretty fast. We knew we’d be riding late, so with a short pit stop for fuel and to warm up over pie and coffee, we settled into the ride and gently hummed along the epic desert roads as civilisation reduced and the sun slowly set into the mountain silhouetted desert around us. We rode well into the night, we hadn’t planned to, but to be on schedule we had to push on to our first planned camp destination.
It felt like a long ride after the busy day, but surreal and very encouraging to think that just a few hours earlier we were hustling through a bustling LA, had since ridden through the highest point in LA county and were now close to the lowest elevation in North America, all in just a few hours. We reached the camp without a glitch, just in time to grab a pizza and a beer before the camp shop closed. The first night was relaxed, we set up camp, made a fire and got the chance to properly introduce and get to know each other more, eventually deciding to get a good nights sleep ahead of the busy couple of days riding ahead.
As we arrived in the dark, we were excited to wake up early and see what was around us. Much to everyone’s frustration, we were woken at 2am and then again at 6am when our camp was suddenly surrounded by a boy scout group who rolled up in the middle of the night with their ‘scout master general’ barking orders at his team of reluctant disciples, who all wanted to be sleeping just as much as we did. The ground was rock hard, which didn’t deter them from begrudgingly trying to bash metal tent pegs into the ground all night with rocks, with nothing but whines and groans between each loud whack, just feet away from our heads. “Good morning and thank you ever so much” (said in a very British Monty Pythonesque sarcastic tone). We all agreed that the next night camp must be as far away from people as possible.
The surrounding landscape was breathtaking, desert as far as the eye could see, which really does feel like you’re at the bottom of a dead, dried up ocean, surrounded by a seemingly endless boundary of mountains. It was 7am and the temperature was already starting to rise. With record air temperatures reaching 57+°C, you see how this can become one of the hottest places in the world. Death Valley is famous for a few things, its the lowest place on the continent at 282 feet below sea level, it’s one of the driest places in North America with an average of just 5 cm rainfall a year and was very well known for it’s gold and borax mining.
I later found out that the white, dissolvable powder component ‘Borax’ is produced by repeated evaporation and used in everything from detergents, cosmetics, enamel glazes, as an alkali in photographic developers and even has an anti-fungal compound! They also used Borax as part of the gold mining process, reducing the need for toxic mercury, but since the industry declined and active mines decreased, it meant that the previous settlers, had no choice but to move on, leaving many of the mines and mining towns derelict.. and highly toxic, but more on that later.
The first day we had a couple of key spots planned, we wanted to visit the Barker Ranch, which is where Charles Manson took over a small mining village, but we had word that most of it had burned down and that there were much more interesting places to see. Instead we rerouted towards a couple of almost derelict ‘ghost mining towns’ dotted along our route through the national park.
“WE STOPPED AT WHAT LOOKED LIKE IT COULD BE THE ENTRANCE TO THE CAMP SITE, THERE WAS A SMALL, DARK, HALF FALLING DOWN SHACK LIKE HOUSE, WITH A LARGE FRONT PORCH WITH A PIANO, ROCKING CHAIR AND A SMALL TABLE WITH A COUPLE OF EMPTY BEER BOTTLES ON IT. AS WE SHUT THE ENGINES OFF, A DARK SHADOW EMERGED FROM THE DILAPIDATED DOOR WAY..”
Our first stop was Darwin, which initially seemed derelict, but as we got closer to the centre of the small town, we realised that people still lived there. The majority of the run down town looked like everyone had just picked up and left one day, leaving everything they couldn’t carry. It was hard to tell what houses were habited and which weren’t, front doors and garages were left wide open, like someone may live there but wasn’t home. You could tell that the more ‘free spirited’, off-grid seeker, Californian types would have relocated to places like this in the sixties. There were knackered old Beetles, buses and incredible old American cars everywhere, sinking slowly into the ground. We didn’t see many other people on motorcycles, mainly groups of friends ripping through the desert on small ATV’s or tricked out over-landers. They were all very willing to share the best routes and trails that led through the mountains to neighbouring villages or mines. One suggestion stood out more than others. There was word of a small semi-derelict village at the foot hills of several disused mines, surrounded by mountains, with a remote camp site run by a friendly old chap and we had firm instructions that if we did go there we absolutely had to try his homemade moonshine. These are the kind of tips you don’t pass up on an impromptu road trip, it didn’t take much deliberation.. we were all on board!
Kevin needed to carry quite a bit of camera equipment, so we loaded his motorcycle with a set of Malle Moto Panniers, The Moto Duffel and The Hybrid Moto Tank/Tail/Pannier Bag, while Eric and I were ‘all terrain testing’ the new Malle Racer Jackets and Expedition Trousers, set to launch this year in the U.S. The bikes and kit looked great together, especially when we started to go ‘off piste’ and get stuck into some of the infamous trails, each turn luring you in with promise of even better turns and trails to explore around the next corner, and then the next, and then the next. With the sun setting at around 16:30, days were pretty short and night was drawing in so we pushed on towards the night camp destination. We carried on along a back route; a rugged dirt road with endless dusty trails to peel off, explore and rejoin the main track a bit further along. This is where we got to really play with the 3 bikes, riding on through in the direction of the second nights’ camp.
As we rolled up to the old village, we stopped at what looked like it could be the entrance to a camp site, there was a small, dark, half falling down shack like house, with a large front porch with a piano, rocking chair and a small table with a couple of empty beer bottles on it. As we shut the engines off, a dark shadow emerged from the dilapidated door way, it was like a scene from most American horror films, I was waiting for the “you’re not from ‘round here” statement.. Eric quickly stepped up and said “Do you sell moonshine? Is there somewhere we can pitch a tent or two?” A dim light turned on and we were welcomed by a very friendly, quite large chap, who we later found out wasn’t the moonshiner. In a very welcoming voice he answered “Of course you can, come on in, you look like you could use a drink”. Phew, perhaps we weren’t all going to die in the desert after all. The maker wasn’t around at that moment, but his moonshine was, the chap sold us a large jam jar full of the special apple infused spirit. It had a shot glass sunk in the bottom of it, “that’s for the second jar” he remarked, apparently “if you made it, you’re going to need it!”. I’m not quite sure what he meant, nor what the alcohol percentage was, or if it was appropriate to ask, so we just laughed as he pointed us in the direction of the camp. This nights camp was an almost dark field in the middle of the moon lit desert. Although this wasn’t quite the remote and peaceful, star-gazing desert camp we were hoping for. There was a subtle and distant sound of disco music playing, but it was too late to go anywhere else, plus deep down inside, we all have a little party butterfly inside us, just waiting to flutter its little disco wings, right?
We camped about as far away from the current residents as politely possible, close enough to be in the camp, but not so close that we’d have to integrate if they were a bunch of lunatics. The camp was full or massive RV’s, ATV’s and crazy Mad Max style, home made desert racer machines – imagine 4 wheels mounted onto a stripped car chassis, sprung with huge off-road suspension, a roll cage of such and a huge V8 engine bolted to the back. On arrival and as we started to unpack and set our tents up, a couple of these mad Max style machines drove up and did a slow lap around us, obviously scoping us out, but without stopping to talk to us. A bit strange, but we were new comers to their camp, we could hear children, so they were probably checking we weren’t lunatics either.
Once our camp was set up, fire was made and out of nowhere Eric was cooking at least 3 incredible looking meals at once, we figured it was a good time to have a little taste of the infamous Moonshine, naturally a small amount of liquor makes for a comfier pillow! Plus we needed to pluck up the courage to go and meet our new neighbours at some point. The moonshine circled around the fire several times while the food was cooking as we all wound down from the days ride, sharing stories about adventures past and new. I was really happy to be there, almost immobilised by this new and strange environment, the crackling fire, the unknown neighbours, new friends chatting and already sounding like old friends, hands still a bit numb from a day of vibrations, the smell of food cutting into the fresh desert air as the temperatures fall, rinsing the dirt out of your teeth with a cold beer, the dust settling into the dark sky around us, taking breaks from watching the flames dance and crackle to lean back and soak in the stars, I always forget how incredible the stars look in the desert, it’s good to feel small for a moment, like nothing matters, like the world isn’t such a fucked up place. I’m happy to the core. This is what it’s all about.
As the night went on, we noticed the buzz and beat from the neighbouring camp get louder and what looked like lasers and smoke coming from the heart of the noise. I’m not sure if we or the moonshine (which was nearly gone at this stage) decided, but we all agreed it was time to integrate! We grabbed a pocket beer or two, cheersed another sip of the moonshine and headed over towards the larger fire in the middle of the main camp. There were a few games being played around the main fire, as well as huddles of people each gathering in smaller camp groups around some of the biggest RV’s and motor homes I’d ever seen. As we started chatting to the fellow campers, we grew to find out that the 200+ folk were all part of the same club, they were all derelict mine enthusiasts that had travelled from all over the U.S. for their annual meeting. Once a year they each drive their RV’s, ATV’s, desert racers, loaded up with mine exploration kit to head out to a prearranged location, this year was Death Valley. There was a wide range of ages and interest levels that had each ventured thousands of miles to come and spend a few weeks pitched up in the desert. They’d spend each day exploring trails that led into derelict mines to see what they could discover. Their interest was not only in the elements that previous miners would extract from the mines, but also the techniques and tools that were historically used. I’m sure that some of the crowd used the exploration as a permit to come and blast around the desert in their desert race machines, but a lot of the people we met were serious enthusiasts and operated mines of all sizes back in their home towns, mining and trading tonnes of precious stones all over the world.
Our conversations, despite being incredibly interesting, were edging us closer and closer to the beat. Which now visually a bit clearer, appeared to be some kind of giant wooden unit, kitted out with speakers, a smoke machine and lasers firing out of it, surrounded by a ring of quad bikes and a few people dancing in the dust. As we got closer still, Eric took the plunge and half shimmied / half danced his way over with us lot in tow. The DJ, who also looked like he’d also been at the moonshine, wearing nothing but a monkey onsie and a sailor hat, was stood behind what I could only describe as a once ‘state of the art’, 1940’s television entertainment system, about 4 meters wide by 1.5 meters tall. Monkey Sailor was pumping out 90’s house tunes, while his mate manually controlled a makeshift laser and smoke performance. After a few high fives and introductions, he told us how they had ‘modernised’ the old entertainment system with sub woofers, electrics, CDJ’s and a light show and dragged it to where ever the club would meet to entertain who ever was willing to be entertained.. which in this case was us! We all kicked up dust, dancing on ‘quad bikes podiums’ and partied with them while learning more about some of the mining adventures they’d been on all over the country.
Somewhere in the mix of things, Eric came up with a grand idea to bring LA’s hip scene out here to a rave in an old mine, where ‘DJ Monkey Sailor’ would bring the sounds and we’d bring the people. An idea so great that Eric convinced me that at around 2am when everyone had gone to bed that we should go knocking on trailer doors until we found ‘DJ Monkey Sailor’. We absolutely had to get his details so we could make this mine rave happen. Eventually we found him, I’m not sure we sold the concept that well at this point, despite repeatedly promising him we’d “cut you in man..”. He reluctantly gave us his card, more to get rid of us than anything, then we over-excitedly cartwheeled back to camp to tell the others about our done deal, although again, I’m not sure we were quite explaining it well. The rest of the night was a bit of a blur.. But I do remember pointing out that perhaps lining a previously closed down, historic mine with vibrating speakers and packing it full of people might be a little unsafe.. a small detail.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of shuffling around our camp and the noise of rummaging through our things. It was early morning, my head was pounding and the light was so bright I could barely open my eyes, all I could see were the figures of what looked like 15 people going through our things. What do we do?? I rubbed my eyes as hard and fast as I could and once focused a little more I came to realise it wasn’t 15 people at all.. It was 8 or 9 donkeys, going through all our food and luggage. What on earth were all these donkeys doing all the way out here?! Why are they going through all our stuff??! What the hell was in that moonshine??! As soon as we stirred the donkeys causally trotted out of the camp taking whatever food was left out from the night before, a pretty wild site to wake up to. I later found out that the ‘Burros’ were introduced in the late 1800’s, a lot of them brought up from South America to help support the mining industry. They were a vital part of the workforce, needed to help grind rocks and pull carts, but after the gold rush and mines started to close, many of the animals were released into the desert, where they either died or in the case of this herds ancestors, learned to find food, breed and live off the land.. or visitors’ left over pasta.
The rest of the wake up was slow. I would have slept more if it wasn’t for the intense desert sun, so we decided to pack our things and head out. We stopped at the welcome cabin, the scary porch wasn’t so scary any more, we finally met the maker of this potent liquor, he offered us more, we decided we’d had just the experience we needed until next time and politely declined.
The route out was about 5 miles of track to the road and just over an hours ride to our next destination – Trona Pinnacles. I’d seen pictures of this landmark and it was high on Kevin’s list. On route to Trona Pinnacles we passed through a small mineral town called Searles Valley. It was beautifully photographic. It looked like what would have been an active mineral mining town, but now most of the town was nearly completely desolate and houses looked like they’d been abandoned. After a bit of investigation it seems that the area, that was once an active borax mining company, had changed purposes regularly over the last century and had not so long ago received claims that toxins produced by the plant reported to have killed migratory birds and the brine had allegedly caused poisoning to plant workers due to its rich arsenic content. We slowly cruised on stopping at a local mini market for snacks and clean socks. We were all pretty delirious, from either the lack of sleep, dehydration, arsenic, or possibly a little too much moonshine. Either way, motion and the cool soothing air was in our favour as we headed on to Trona Pinnacles.
The track leading into the pinnacles was approximately 5 incredibly fun miles of bumpy, dusty trails, rising and falling through the endless desert, looping back and forth over disused railway tracks, as the pinnacles started to appear as small peaks in the distance. They don’t look like much until you’re right up next to them. The trail suddenly dropped down until you’re amongst them, some as high as 140 feet high, the ‘tufa spires’ are what still stand from the base of a lake bed, each of them were formed by springs interacting with other bodies of water when this was an ocean. We rattled the bikes through and around the Pinnacles for a while to get our desert fill and a few cool photos before taking on the ride back into LA. The ride back into the city was long, but exhilarating, a welcome wind down and time to reflect on 3 incredibly fun days, that felt like 3 weeks that you know will feel like 3 minutes as soon as you’re back to reality.
Since the trip I’ve re-mapped out our impromptu route. The alluring roads, trails and landscapes of Death Valley kept us dancing around the western edge, barely scratching the surface of over 5000 square miles of National Park. The basic planning and preparation was imperative to making sure we didn’t get stuck unprepared or were too optimistic with distances, but the spontaneity of the unknown findings from the most unsuspecting places, trails and people were what made it so unique and special. Until the next one..
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