Sheephole Valley Wilderness. It was just three words I saw on the my cell phone’s map app.
Although I really don’t care for directions or cue sheets, trip notes, or even casual plans, it helps to have a trajectory–no matter how vague–to get me out of a daily routine and onto the uncharted nameless two lane roads which tie together the thousands of small towns in the United States. I was already camping near one such small town north of Phoenix, Arizona. Stick-figured Saguaro cactus dominate the sandy desert hills and vacant valleys where there’s plenty of room to hike towards the horizon and disappear forever. Out there, the sun burns, steadily, unwavering, and free from the shadows of clouds. It’s impossible to escape, and breeds a form depression typically found by people living under fluorescent lamps. Except for today. A front was moving in, and bringing cold rain with it. I needed to do was pack and get the hell out to sunny California coastline.
I laid my wool blanket on the desert floor, stacked my sleeping bag atop my sleeping pad, and rolled the whole lot together. I packed my cooler and tools in one pannier, and my cooking gear and camera in the other. I had one extra t-shirt–which tripled as also a bath towel and a cover keeping dew off my windscreen–and one pair of fresh socks to pack in an empty duffle bag. I was already wearing the my thermal underwear, sweatshirt and leather jacket and was hoping to fill that duffle bag with the bulky clothing once I’d made it to sunny SoCal. In hindsight, I suppose I could’ve packed a change of underwear. Sorry, Mom.
A Southwestern Journey
With only moderate hygene in mind, I was off. The hills and valleys fade rapidly as you leave Phoenix and within an hour or two, it’s fairly flat. The terrain is quite polarized out there, and the distant mountains come to an abrupt end where the flat valley floor begins. To say that the scenery is breath taking, would imply that a cliché catch phrase can explain the way that the earth communicates with one’s soul. It cannot, so I’ll just say, “it’s pretty,” and “you’ll have to see it for yourself.”
At some point along the way, the Saguaros loosen their grip on the desertscape and fade away altogether, and around this time I rode through a few small towns with populations barely large enough to sustain a gas station, much less a bank or grocery store or any common commodity. Until Parker: the last town before California. Parker forms a border with the Colorado River, and has a lot to offer including standard 3G service–gas, guns, and groceries–you can buy a gun just as easily as a gallon of grape juice. So there is that.
I topped off the tank and crossed the Colorado River into California where the road is paved directly above rolling sand dunes. Up, down, left, right, and many times all at once. It’s a remarkable feeling to ride that road on a motorcycle and although I couldn’t help but smile, I didn’t dare let my amusement grow into laughter, because patches of deadly sand peppered the paving, and hitting one would certainly have severe consequences. For whatever reason caused the dunes to appear, I suppose the same explanation caused them to go away, and the road returned to its straight and narrow form.
It can be mind numbing riding at the same speed, in the same direction, listening to the same engine RPM and wind-noise, and besides the usual reasons for which sleep-driving isn’t safe, I’ve discovered from past experiences that motorcycle-sleep-driving is even worse: by dozing off, one’s elbow is prone to dropping, thus causing the bike’s speed to increase…
Call it luck, but before I found that fatigue had fatality ruined everything, I saw what appeared to be a fence covered in shoes. I hit the skids, pulled over, and stretched my legs. I wondered if other travelers had felt the same feeling to stop and walk around, and perhaps this place was a natural rest area… covered in old shoes.
Just the same, the Sheephole Valley Wilderness was less than an hour out, and I was burning daylight.
Although Joshua Tree and the Sheephole Valley run east and west along Highway 62, you’d have no idea where either start or end. Joshua Tree, which is about seventy-five miles across, is only marked by a few official entrances in the town of Twentynine Palms. Sheephole Valley is around twenty-five miles across, so it gets a mapless sign.
On a hunch, I turned off the highway at the mapless sign and onto an uncharted road, which most closely resembled a sandbox. My bike, an old Kawasaki Concours was heavy and sporting tires slickend by a year’s worth of cross country travels. It wasn’t easy, but I hustled the beast into the backcountry and looked for a place to call it a night. After several miles things were looking bleak. I wasn’t seeing anyplace suitable for even so much as turning around, and with the nearest gas station over thirty miles away (roundtrip, sixty+), it didn’t take long before I started running low on gas.
But my discouragement was soon countered with the most incredible campsite. Beige rocks dotted the hillsides, both near and far, and peaceful clouds hovered along the horizon. Even better: it was warm and dry, and I totally forgot it was January. I shut off my bike, dismantled the hodgepodge, and constructed my living quarters. Dinner is as camping dinners are, and an electric, mind-blowing sunset followed.
After seeing the Milkyway Galaxy every night for so many years, I was ready to fall asleep without taking note. So I bedded down, lowered my eyelids, and shut out the whirling interstellar wonder.
Sunrise. There’s no “snooze button” on that thing. It was warm and bright, and I was antsy to see the Hollywood hills west of L.A. I made a cup of espresso, loaded my gear and hit the road.
The telltale signs of Twentynine Palms began popping up along the desert-side: shacks–all abandoned. It looks as though nomadic tribe of Shed-dwellers once inhabited the area, but whatever happened to them is anyone’s guess. I stopped and searched one of the shacks for clues, reasons, or explanations, but found nothing.
Onward. Once though Twentynine Palms, the rural nature of smalltown U.S.A. ends, and the endless oval track of L.A. starts. Before I knew what happened, I found myself in what appeared to be a parking lot, but was actually an interstate highway–a 70mph motorcade. There were cars and trucks everywhere. We were mere feet from each other. I saw a motorcycle cop split lanes and pass everyone in a standstill; he must’ve been going 90plus. Madness. I have no idea how long it took, but eventually I found Hollywood. What a dump. Metal security doors with layers of graffiti form a formidable anti-theft patina and casual work environment for the layfolk: whores, drug dealers, and convenience store attendants. I never saw the Hollywood sign, but I did find Beverly Hills, which is only a few miles down the road–but what a difference! More Maseratis and Bugattis than you can imagine and not the proper of place for tent camping.
I phoned a friend and found a place to call it a night. I was exhausted from the day-long rally.
“There’s a dive bar I want you to see,” my friend said. “Its called the Cowboy Palace.” The Cowboy Palace used to form the western front between farmland and film country. Apparently, a certain 1%er motorcycle club took a liking to the joint and began calling it “theirs.” I was told that the farmers weren’t happy with the demographic shift, and some disagreements fluctuated between hostile and bloody, but resulted in an every other day (farmer night / biker night) truce . These days, urban sprawl has pushed most of the rural roughnecks further from town, and all that remains of the western days are a few old-timers and some worn out jeans nailed to the walls for decoration. The 1%ers are still around, and are easily identified for a variety of reasons, but most notable to me were their “club bikes”: all black Dyna baggers with flat bars on tall risers and Thunderheader exhaust. Word on the streets is that they have something to do with the local strip club, but you can decide for yourself.
The pool tables in the Cowboy Palace are totally roached, but we still pumped a few bucks worth of quarters and I lost two out of three. My buddy Drew offered up a consolation prize: tomorrow, he’d take me to the Manson Caves.
The next morning, I packed up my stuff, watched Drew climb into his van. “My bike’s at my parent’s house.” I followed him down a palm tree promenade, and we parked in front of a beautiful, albeit bland, home with a quaint green grassy yard. “Follow me.” I waled into the garage and was stunned at what I saw: street rods, muscle cars, and several motorhomes, all in different stages of restoration and glory. It was incredible. A bit beyond the benches of parts and tools, Drew rolled an old Triumph out of the darkness and into the morning California sun. It was an early 80s amalgomation of cafe and cool, of dirt-track and dirty.
“Hmm–looks like the battery’s dead,” he said. With a few tries, we push-started his bike to life. It was loud, and smelled a little rich on gas.
“Let’s go!” he yelled over the snarling exhaust.
We rode past palm trees and million dollar homes and into a bizarre canyon which gave me an odd, uncomfortable feeling. Sand was scattered randomly along the road, some hidden in the apex of blind corners. Fully loaded, with bedroll, touring gear, and seven gallons in the tank, I white-knuckled almost 1000 pounds of shit. Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable, Drew looked back and pointed skyward.
I saw a ghost… Someone had carved a frightening figure in the canyon wall. Perhaps a warning, perhaps coincidental art, it still scared the shit out of me.
Drew pulled over, and I followed suit. “They used to head up here.”
“Here?” I asked.
“Yeah. Manson and his groupies; the girls were into bikers, and they’d pick ‘em up at the Cowboy palace, and bring ‘em back here for fun. Anyways, this is just one place they’d go; follow me, and I’ll show you another Manson cave you can easily hike to from the road.”
We left the creepy canyon and rode into a beautiful valley. “There used to be a jet engine test plant up the road: Rocketdyne. They spilled gnarly degreaser everywhere. The whole place is toxic. Then they had some kind of nuclear meltdown. Basically everything you see is radioactive. At the same time, the Manson family was hiding in these hills, and the 1%ers were fighting down at the Cowboy Palace for bar space. Pretty wild, huh?”
It was time for Drew to ride back to reality and get to work. He gave me directions to a Manson cave and left. I was on my own and surrounded by the horrors of the 1960s. I hiked down to the cave, and looked around. I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to have been there as a confused young adult, dropping acid with Charlie Manson.
Satisfied with what I’d seen of L.A., and scared shitless of everything else, I saddled up and aimed my nomadic arsenal for a friend’s ranch near Santa Cruz. Highway 1 runs up the coast following high cliffs where cool ocean air meets the first patch of dirt since its five thousand mile voyage across the Pacific. Beyond scenic, that rode is ethereal.
And short-lived. Before I knew it, the sun set. I was still two hours away and Dorothy would’ve been doing red-stiletto heel clickers for 40 miles at the mere the sight of these Wizard of Oz-like angry Oaks: spaghetti streets inspired by Escher, littered with mud slide fallout, booby trapped with cattle guards, bordered by barbed wire fences, frequented by deer, and illuminated by a blanket of thick fog. Fuck. There wasn’t any cell service, but I did see one “NO TRESPASSING” sign after another, so if I did get lost, I was pretty sure I’d die swiftly at the hands of the local tourism board.
Somehow I arrived safely at my friends’ ranch just in time for dinner. They offered a small, Thoreau-inspired private cabin, and I put an end to this chapter of my wandering way, for at least a few weeks I am here to stay. The true makings of a roadtrip.