California and Nevada: Riding the Highs and Lows of the Old West

Riding Motorcycles in California and Nevada: Riding the Highs and Lows of the Old West
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald

Scott’s famous metaphor, the last line of The Great Gatsby, applies to motorcycle touring, for much of what we seek aside from the joyful highs of the road and the wind is an appreciation of the history we ride.

With such in mind I phoned my riding bud Duane to urge him to hop on his ‘89 Honda Hawk and meet me in the abbreviated Eastern Sierra burg of Big Pine, CA, so we could partake in a 400-mile loop to Death Valley and back. Big Pine is situated halfway between our respective domiciles, his in Southern California, mine on the remote northeastern high plains of the state. Memories of riding this region 30 years ago remain fresh like those from a good book that begs to be read again.

Riding Motorcycles in California and Nevada: Riding the Highs and Lows of the Old West
Cruising the long lonely in Deep Springs Valley where classes are in session just up the road.

Big Pine, Big Happy

We begin in this lonely niche of a town on the Owens Valley floor squeezed between the vertical walls of the Sierra and the prehistoric humps of the White Mountains, where at 11,000 feet grow trees that were ancient when Rome fell. The retro Big Pine Motel is a nice beginning because it’s my kind of place to spend the night, where the sweet ladies who run the motel treat me like family, where my motorcycle is parked three feet from my room, where the evening stroll to my favorite steak and spaghetti house is a short one, and where I’m relaxed and as anonymous as I was before I was born.

Riding Motorcycles in California and Nevada: Riding the Highs and Lows of the Old West
Goldfield car lot. Things have gone a little downhill since the yellow metal played out.

Sadly, said restaurant, a much loved institution run since the ‘30s by the Rossis, a pioneer Big Pine ranch family, has been put up for sale. Thankfully, brother Mike is keeping the lights on and tradition alive a few doors away from the old building his mother bought when he was still in diapers, where he and I bantered across the bar all those years ago. After I inhale my plate of spaghetti and meatballs I say, “Hey Mike, great to see you again. Glad to see you’re beating the rap. Your meatballs are still scare-me good.”

Motorcycles & Gear

2006 BMW R 1200 GS
1989 Honda NT647 Hawk

Helmets: Arai Quantum II, Arai Profile
Jackets: BMW Commuter 3, Icon Accelerant
Pants: Riding jeans, Tourmaster rain pants
Boots: Clark’s Desert Boot, Sidi Cobra
Gloves: Tourmaster Adventure Gel, Z Custom Leathers
Luggage: BMW GS Tankbag, Cortech Super 2.0 Tailbag

Flying High

Ernest K. Gann, who wrote of aviation, said the most beautiful thing about an airplane is the sky. We who are stuck to the surly bonds of earth on two measly patches of rubber say it’s the road that’s the thing.

I start up my R 1200 GS. It’s a golden late October afternoon when Duane and I soar a mile up one of the greats, Highway 168, where one’s knees are weakened by the panoramic view across Owens Valley, the 14,000-foot minarets of the Sierra, and the arid Inyo Mountains plunging to meet their date with Death Valley. We’re here to have a look at one of the oldest known living things on our beleaguered planet, the bristlecone pines, a unique stand of trees that have been sculpted by four to five millennia of all the fire, ice, and sandblast nature can dish out. The trees aren’t tall and stately things of beauty, but short and contorted, most reaching no more than 25 feet, and erosion has exposed a large proportion of their root systems. Many are partly dead and it is thought that only a small vein of living tissue keeps them alive.

Riding Motorcycles in California and Nevada: Riding the Highs and Lows of the Old West
An acquaintance asked if I was getting too old to ride. Nope. My bike keeps me close to the kid I used to be. -Denis Rouse

Deep Springs College, Desert Solitaire

I stopped here once curious. A college campus that since 1917 has occupied a historic 300,000-acre cattle and hay ranch in a desert valley as remote as the moon? No frat rats? No party hearty? The all-male student body (less than 30) runs the ranch and reads Shakespeare and Kant before breakfast. They learn heavy equipment operation and irrigation and how to butcher the beef and pork they raise and how to fix fences and Emersonian self-reliance and the ideals of true social conscience, and they learn to write and speak well. I was especially interested in a re-visit to Deep Springs because there’s an alum I admire who writes like an avenging angel—William T. Vollmann. When Duane and I ride in to take a few shots, we meet first-year student Tom from Ipswich, MA, who kindly offers to show us around.

Riding Motorcycles in California and Nevada: Riding the Highs and Lows of the Old West
Memories are the only fuel left in the old silver mining town of Keeler.

The college was founded by L.L. Nunn, an electrical engineer who pioneered hydroelectric energy and alternating current delivery in the early 1900s. What he said in 1923 best expresses the goal of the school: “The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice. … You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things.”

Goldfield, NV—Boom to Bust

Following a major gold discovery in 1904, Goldfield became the biggest, richest city in Nevada. At its height, population swelled to 30,000, and it boasted three newspapers, five banks, a mining stock exchange, the longest bar in any mining town, Tex Rickard’s Northern Saloon, and the most luxurious hotel between Chicago and San Francisco.