Ancient beings in the Bristlecone Pine Forest, California

A manic sky of cloud and light.

In early April, when Death Valley had finally, finally started to lose some of its gleam, we jumped back on the road. And an hour’s scoot to the east of Bishop, up the road from Big Pine, arrived at the Bristlecone Pine Forest nestled in the White Mountains at 11,000-feet. Plummeting temperatures and snow-lined roads notwithstanding, wow wee, entering the land of the ancients was home to the oldest recorded living things on earth.

Some of these trees are more 5,060 years old.

“Just look how withered, twisted and gnarly that one is. And that one,” Jase commented. Well, how would you look if you were 5,000 years old? I mused. Sometimes his mouth had a life of its own, an existence beyond its earthly owner. The Great Basin Bristlecones were past celebrating birthdays. Fairytale-like, many reminded me of the Hometree of the Omaticaya clan in the movie Avatar. Sculpted and stunted by thousands of years of exposure to barren soil, drought, wind-whipped sand and ice—the hardy trees survive to a great age not in spite of the cold, dry, wind-tortured conditions in the mountains—but because of them.

There is something magically malevolent about this one, my favourite.

Our next sortie at Mono Lake could wait. Raging winds with a banshee moan competed with gusting side winds on a par with those in Patagonia. It filled my mouth, parted and viciously snapped my hair, making me grunt like a professional tennis player leaning into it. “Arrgh!”—it was so loud that I couldn’t discern any identifiable sound, nothing but an ear-damaging, tinnitus-inducing sound that rearranged my atoms and quashed thought. On top, sub-zero nighttime temperatures and the onset of snow forced us to push through 250-miles from Big Pine, California.

“STOPPING! Can’t see for sun cream in my eyes!”

Gratefully, a wonderful week in Reno unfolded with hosts Sean and Kate. And their twin teenage boys—polite to the nth degree. Kate was a riot, teacherly, wise and according to her boss, “with a little bit of f*&k you” thrown in. As Kate pointed out: “Hey Mother Nature, you’re drunk again”—when in the space of one week, we got treated to yo-yo warm northern Nevada sunshine, chilly daylong downpours, and a smattering of snow. Like some cowboy advertising company in charge of it all.

On some afternoons, the wind was straight out of the west and I heard the moan leap to bellowing, a terrible wind out of the catalogue of winds. Hurling at velocities that made the sky purple, the air glow and on occasion, peoples’ trampolines—capable of accommodating 250-pounds—lift straight off the ground and land into next door’s backyard!

Unruly winds notwithstanding, I warmed just as much to Sean when he hugged me on arrival. Definitely a guy who oozed friendliness, a magnanimous sort that held solid man-of-the-people and animal principles.

Also resident in the household were four bounding poodles: 100-pounds of Hank “The T-a-n-k!” and Melanie, a therapy (“Pet me”) dog who, when off the clock, possessed an unmissable ladylike but aloof demeanour. I renamed the little madam to Penelope. Harley, a one-year pup was incapable of doing anything but gallop. That, and jumping on or over anything above 5-foot. Last, by no means least, my personal favourite was Murphy—a perfect canine whose patience was saintly. My adorable Lamb Chop.

Hilariously, all the dogs were managed in one regard by a hired lady from Poop 911. Bestowing the pet tribe with treats in the backyard, before scoopin’ up all the poop. Only in ‘Murica! A restorative, social and indulgent week snug from the wind—thanks, guys.

Mono Lake, California

A tufa cluster made of limestone towers.

After a week in Reno, Mono Lake in Lee Vining may have been a degree warmer: one of the western hemisphere’s oldest lakes teeming with brine shrimp. It’s an alkaline inland sea—ripe with “tufas”, mysterious-looking limestone towers. A tranquil if not fleeting experience before a night carrying a coldness that ate into the bones. I made a thousandth vow to source a warmer sleeping bag.

Bodie State Historic Park Museum, California

“Hello, anybody home? Hello?”
“Now who lives in a house, like this?”

More or less down the road, we descended on a town so lawless that in 1881 it was described by Reverend F.M. Warrington as “a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.” Ooh err, missus. Back in ‘59, prospectors E.S. “Black” Taylor and W.S. Bodie stumbled on one of the richest veins of gold in California. It took only a decade for the strike to produce $15 to $35 million in gold and silver, while the town grew to around 10,000 residents. Short-lived as boom towns go, the mines had largely depleted by 1886. The population shrunk until two fires devastated all but 10 percent of the town.

Bodie. It will blow your mind…
…and thrill the imagination. Let it unfurl, unbidden.

The park itself is a museum: becoming a ghost town in the 1940s, what remains after flames and dereliction has been preserved in a state of “arrested decay” since 1962, with about 200 structures kept exactly as they were. On the inside and out, before everyone decided to down tools, up sticks and depart with the utmost despatch.

Make like a tyre and skiddadda here.

Old automobile relics, and machinery for mining, milling and farming were dotted around. There was a school, Methodist church, stores, stables and a barber shop. I saw “Dog-Face” George’s house, remnants of dancing halls and saloons, a Masonic Cemetry and the morgue.

One of the saloon bars.
The queues are small but the atmosphere’s a little flat.

Strolling down the dirt streets and peering into some of the renounced buildings—still furnished and stocked with rusting goods strewn about—provided a snapshot of the past. “Look, I think it’s a ghost dog,” looking up to a pining dog in the window of a closed house a few doors down. A passerby frowned at me, “I don’t think so, because we can all see it so…” Oh dear.

Straight from a horror film, no?
Looking at the past: no room to take the table and chairs, just the clothes on your back and a few belongings.
A sneak peak through a chained door, prized slightly ajar.

Stood outside another house, I turned towards it, cloaked in uninviting silence. The disowned residence was so old the spirits themselves had melted into the walls. It felt inhabited not by anyone’s unhappiness but by the collected years of generations, their meals and fights, their births and last gasps. The rooms were snug and dim. The ceilings depressed by the partially collapsed roof. Its shabbiness had a rustic quality around the handmade cabinetry and the lacy blinds dangled from frayed cords the colour of strong tea. A phantasmagoria of a life long-abandoned and mystery. A zoo of the mind.

Just plain eerie.
Go in, I dare you.
Wandering around in somebody’s old life, now long gone.

The last owners must have run out of money for only the bedroom walls were adorned in wallpaper swarming with faded flowers. My motorcycle boots clunked over creaking floorboards towards it. Jutting out of a broken bed near a large-wheeled pram thrown on its side, a doll with a cracked face looked out of one eye with a blank but disturbing stare. Spooked from a scene straight out of a horror film, the jitters crawled down my spine as I pictured the place in the dead of night amid a winter storm.

The eerie town-wide quiet was odd. And this house was somewhat haunting. I shivered from a cold rush, pushed down an uneasy feeling with every ounce of will I had and scrambled for the door. Deliciously frightened, it was enough to make my blood seize up. Still, it was a place I had never been nor thought to go.

Wonderfully warped.

Death Valley, California…again!

Back on the bike with time to kill waiting for a package to arrive, revisiting Death Valley for the fourth time seemed only logical. Even if it was akin to riding in a windy sauna; the heat was so oppressive. But throwing the sleeping bags on the ground at our intimate snuggery (Emigrant Campground), below the stars was pure wonderful. Elated, we bumped into Steve, one of Death Valley’s posse from our previous visits. When not hanging out with family, he travels and resides in a rather splendid 4WD Sportsmobile.

As support vehicles go, I have never experienced such a fine care package. Steve levered the cap from a bottle of chilled Corona topped with a wedge of lime on our arrival. Plied us with Colombian coffee every morning with egg butties (sandwiches); and the nonstop use of his gas stove on which we cooked and hydrated with tea. Our milk kept cool in his refrigerator. A compressor for pumping Jason’s tyre back up and sunscreen for me. Comfy deck chairs for both of us beneath the daylong shade, “chips and dip” on the hour, every hour. If not, gherkins (pickles) and cheese.

Steve was butter of the generous spreading consistency. Nat Geo maps to scout more of the area and constant charging facilities. Talk about awesome in the Wordsworth sense (not the Bill and Ted); in fact, I think Steve has Awesome Disease. Many wouldn’t understand, they don’t have it.

Steve: the milk of human kindness.
Borrowing the Sportmobile’s compressor, thanks Steve!

“I want to find this dried mud flat I saw on YouTube Lisa. Coming?”

“Oh yeah, where is it?”

“I’ve got some idea, it’s next to some red rock.”

“Sure—what? Next to “some red rock”?!”

Meditating into the middle distance.

Fathoming more than he lets on, Jason located the dried mud flat next to a portion of the said red rock in the mountainside. A couple of miles from Golden Canyon in Badwater Basin, and a ten-minute walk out pinpointing the aesthetically pleasing mud, there it was. A soothing space, where the cracked valley floor was patterned in thick-cut crazy paving, fragments of which crushed in between my fingers to fine talcum powder, leaving the soles of my feet caked in a creamy white softness.

Ancient shapes formed in an ancient mudflat.

Wellbeing replenished and renewed having spent the late afternoon making uninterrupted contact with the ground, warm against bare skin. Assuming back-rinsing and neck-relieving yoga poses, trying to stay mindful in relaxed meditation. A gilded four-hours. During the night, a tongue of balmy air licked out from the valley floor. Where I sank like bedrock into a deep slumber, Jason snuck off at 2 am where a waxing moon illumined the sky to shoot the mud against the Milky Way. Rarely a question I need to answer.

Sorry–no Milky Way for you tonight, sunshine.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, near Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley. Delectable.

With both vitamins G (from the ground) and D from a little intense sun exposure, courtesy of the desert of extremes, my cool sense of wellbeing began to melt in an erupting 110F heat. A searing hot, windless noon hour ensued like a slot between two warring weather systems. I breathed through my mouth, squinting through the haze in the shimmering heat. Splendidly, a mere $4 spent at the Stovepipe Wells Resort Hotel will buy you all the liquid invigoration you can manage in a day. Forty calming lengths and a lukewarm shower later, I’m happy as a clam.

One of Death Valley’s coyotes; this one’s feeling peckish.

Departing Death Valley, we felt and heard and then saw three fighter jets above us, flying outrageously low to say hello. The commotion derailed any coherent train of thought. Shrieking in pure joy, I laughed unbridled and with total abandon. A feel-good feeling flooded my system; it was enough to dine out on for the next hour. A resident coyote on the roadside lifted his snout in a final farewell if not in the hopes of snaffling food. Undeniably, Death Valley had fed us royal. I felt that nameless pleasure that comes only with a stint in the desert.

Serendipitous reunions

Randomly, after another night in the Alabama Hills, we bumped into the young Scottish/South African couple, Bruce and Kyla, who we’d met last year in British Columbia. And Steve, our new chase truck still in tow. Bruce was unpretentious, likeable and out-and-out funny as you can imagine in possession of more energy than he could use. Kyla, a sweet girl, was eager to embrace the bare-bones approach to motorcycling.

Beautiful cloud formations in the Alabama Hills.
The Bristlecone Pine posse!

Laudably, having once been given a BMW F800GS, Kyla was once set to be the youngest girl to ride the world. Shame the obligations placed on her were too high but good on her for swapping out to a smaller bike, very minimally, and tazzing around the world anyway. Hugging our fast friends—it’s never goodbye, it’s see you later—we all hugged and clasped hands, pumping the air as if drawing deep water from a well. The fellowship of the road filled me like a cream horn.

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