Dirt Bikes, Death Valley, and the Wheelie King of New York

The coldest time of year is the best time to ride a dirt bike in the hottest place in America.

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Death Valley doesn’t reserve its murderous inclinations just for the heat of summer. The shaley road out to the Racetrack Playa is slippery with sharp little rocks that send a motorcycle’s front wheel swimming for traction. Peering out from under them are large, round stones. Lunkers. The kind of monsters you’d find at the beach. The kind that’ll disappear in a cloud of dust to surprise you and punch your wheel sideways so you go sailing over the bars leaving a skytrail of your belongings and a whole damn motorcycle cartwheeling in your wake and on your path, so that when you land you’re peppered with granola bars and broken mirrors and your dignity isn’t the only thing needing repair. Damn if this place isn’t beautiful, and man, does it ever want you dead.

Besides a disintegrated rear-view mirror, the bike looks more or less unscathed. It’s a big KTM enduro—the 690. Bold and huge and way too much machine for me, the bike can take a beating better than I can and has seemed eager to prove it all day. And like anything exceptional in the hands of a novice, it finally does.

If it wasn’t a flying dismount near Teakettle Junction it could be one of the thousands of collapsing mineshafts, or a sidewinder, or a spider, or a stray thread of barbed wire stretched out along my path just so. In the winter there’s cold that can kill, and rain that can sweep you away. It can hail, too. Even in the middle of the desert squall lines form, then roll in off the western mountains, moving at a fast jog across the valley. The day before we’d dodged them all the way back to the hotel, blowing sideways and leaning into the wind. It was a hell of an introduction to the desert for my companions.

They’re New Yorkers, longtime riders and motorcycle club members from Harlem. The best kind of city people: smart guys as curious about the strangeness of exploring a National Park the size of Connecticut as they are the breakfast menu at the Denny’s in a Beatty, Nevada casino. Albert Elkerson goes by Al Capone, and he’s introduced to me as the wheelie king of New York. He’s in his mid-40’s and the kind of confident you get when you’ve spent a lot life on one wheel, taunting stiffs, luck, and the NYPD at the same time.

Al’s something of an activist now, and that’s why he’s in California with two members of his club—getting acquainted with the desert and the Motorcycle Industry Council all at the same time. The man has a point. There’s room for every other sport in New York city but his. So, after years of close calls, his motorcycle club is pushing the urban dirtbike community in New York to unite and build a place where everyone can ride together—out of city traffic and without the constant hassle. It’ll get dirtbikes off the streets while keeping urban motorcycle culture thriving. Al has sold me on the cause before he finishes his Grand Slam breakfast.

Titus Canyon is a masterpiece of erosion and a perfect place for a motorcycle. A red dirt road leads out of Nevada, past the ghost town of Leadfield, and up into Californian mountains. It’s everything. Switchbacks and wide, yawning corners, sand and gravel and rock. In the summer, deep stone canyons shield you from glaring sunlight and keep the last cold of the night hidden away in the rocks. In the winter, the canyon is cold and dry and stunning—just so long as you’re ahead of the rain. The signs of flooding are abundant in twisted knots of plants flung well up the canyon wall.

When you hit the kill switch in Titus Canyon everything goes silent. Quiet like you’ve never heard. There’s no jet noise from 30,000-feet overhead, no trickling of a brook or chattering birds or humming insects. Nothing. I could soak it up for hours. The quiet shows the big difference in our eastern and western sensibilities. I want to share in the quiet so loud that it’ll make your ears ring, but in minutes Al and his friends are ecstatic and laughing and joking and mugging for photos. It’s not so different than the concrete canyons they’re accustomed to riding, I guess. Anyway, they seem right at home.

On road, the big KTM takes no getting accustomed to. Dirt bikes, especially big single-cylinder machines like the Enduro R, are often overlooked by sport riders. But all the requisite parts are there. A stiff trellis frame, purposeful suspension and a rudely torque-y motor. Taken together, it could be the description of a sport bike—and it’s everything you want in the twisties. Truth be told, there’s nothing I’d rather hustle down a paved canyon. In this deep gravel and with my off-road inexperience, though, the big KTM has me busy. The bike will turn—I’ve seen it happen, goddamit! More able riders can rail on a 690 Enduro, but for the life of me I can’t get it pointed the right way unless I’m pouring on the throttle—which means a whoosh of eye-popping speed. Which means anxiety. Because a dirt bike with just a hair under 700 cc’s of displacement does speed like few things in this world.

Titus Canyon leads to the desert floor. To the south is Furnace Creek and Badwater. The lowest point in the US, where rainwater collects every crystal of salt and condenses in the sun, leaving a thick white crust. We turn north, toward the vast Ubehebe Crater, and from there, the Racetrack Playa. Beautiful and weird and spooky, the Playa is home to a strange and unsettling natural curiosity: Rocks that move across the desert of their own accord. Their paths are illuminated by scars in the perfectly flat and dry lakebed surface.

It’s a rock not unlike one you’d find carving across the Playa that sends me sprawling out into the desert. I’m fine. The machine is fine. Actually, it looks good, covered in silty dirt. I just look filthy. The smell of my dust blowing away in the cold desert air is enough to remind me of the value of two wheels. How impossibly connected and mindful of your environment it makes you. It was a good reminder to take it easy in the middle of nowhere. 

When I catch up with the Wheelie King of New York and the rest of the gang taking photos at Teakettle Junction, I’m a little conspicuous. The junction isn’t much more than a crude wooden sign pointing the way to the Playa or Hunter Mountain, but over the years it’s become a traditional repository for old kettles, tied up and slung over the sun-beat wood. They’re covered in the scrawling signatures and words of other survivors and admirers of Death Valley. Dusty, happy, bruised but not broken, we add our names to the lot of them.