December, 1976

Richbar Camp
Boulder City
Boulder City
1 January 1977
Las Vegas
Death Valley

Death Valley
Bad Water

This was a six day trip south from Sacramento, south to Bakersfield, over to Hoover Dam and then to Death Valley National Monument before riding back to Sacramento. The trip was over the Christmas Holiday (from school) and extended into the new year.  This wasn't my first trip of this length, but it was the first trip where my destination wasn't entirely known and where I wasn't riding to something. My earlier longer trips had been north to Washington to visit with the grandparents.

Unlike all subsequent trips (save two others), I took a notebook and kept track of a number of important details (or details that seemed important at the time). The notes are included--unchanged--along with additional comments from when this report is being written (2003).

The motorcycle is a 1973 Suzuki T-500, Titan. The camera is a Kodak Instamatic.


Start   26,327 mi.

Ripon 26,406 mi., 3.5 gal

Stop at rest area between Merced and Turlock 11:05

30 mi. before Fresno--26,487 mi., 2.8 gal.

Stop at Clovis. Tom Duncan not in book.   Approx. 1:00

Tom Duncan was a friend from the previous summer, when we both worked for the BLM out of Lakeport California. We were roommates together at a Lakeport motel which served as the base for all of the surveying teams working the surrounding area.

Tulare 26,579 mi., 2.9 gal

For some reason, I thought recording my mileage was meaningful. If you run the numbers, it does, however, point out what terrible gas mileage the Suzuki got.  Two-stroke engines have several advantages, but fuel economy is not one of them.


At Bakersfield I turned up highway 178 towards Lake Isabella. I had planned on spending every night sleeping outside, and hadn't even considered staying in motels. This is a very nice motorcycle road as it winds up the foothills, alongside a river. The sun was at the horizon by the time I found a riverside camping spot.

Slept upper Richbar Camp on 178. Left 6:30.   Rain.

Not owning a tent at that time, I slept out in the open (in fact, the sleeping bag I used was borrowed from my sister).  All that I had was a clear plastic painter's drop with me, which I ended up spreading over the top of my sleeping bag in a useless battle against the rain. I didn't get much sleep at all (the goose down sleeping bag became soaked) which didn't help the next day.  It took several kicks (few motorcycles of that time had electric start) to get the engine started that cold and misty morning. I returned back along the same road to Bakersfield.

Bakersfield 26683, 3.5 gal.

From Bakersfield I turned east on CA-58 to ride over the Tehachapi Mountains and descend into the Mojave Desert. Unexpectedly, it was actually snowing at the summit, and continued to drizzle as I dropped down towards Mojave.

50 miles out of Bakersfield got very dizzy and had to pull over.

This happened on the downward slope about 20 miles outside Mojave. This was my first (but not last) experience with hypothermia. Cresting the pass before descending into Mohave I actually rode several miles in light snow. The rest of the time I was riding in the rain. It was very cold, and I noticed that I was gradually losing all peripheral vision. Luckily, I had enough sense to pull over to the side of the road before my vision became so tunneled that I couldn't see anything at all. I may have been out for a few minutes lying next to the bike (in the rain) but I shortly came around. I'm sure that just removing the effect of the wind from riding was enough to allow my body to warm up. A little startled by the whole episode, I kicked the engine over, and cruised at only a moderate speed into Mojave.

9:00 ate in Mohave. $2.07 plus 50¢ tip

But, mostly, I sat in the coffee shop with my hands around a hot mug trying to get warm. I'd later regret being such a generous spender.

Mohave, 2.4 gal 26,746 mi.

Stop at rest stop near Boron. No rain, overcast.

By this time, it wasn't nearly so cold.


Barstow, 2.7 gal, 26,820 mi.

Arrive Baker at 1:30. Ate lunch. No rain.

Lunch was whatever I carried with me. I didn't plan on eating in restaurants or staying in motels.


Henderson - 3.6 gal, 26,444 mi.

The ride from Baker to Henderson was fairly long, and I was worried that I would run out of gas before then. There is now a fairly large resort town at the Nevada state line, but that didn't yet exist when this trip was taken.

Arrive Boulder around 4:00

Spend night at Desert Inn Motel $13.00. Ate dinner at "Best food by a Dam Site" Rain - Forecast for more.

It was raining fairly heavily much of this time, so there was no way I would consider riding anywhere else. I just parked the bike.

Rain grooves are hazardous to riding.

This may just have been my own inexperience. These days I tend to search out the worst of the grooves when riding on grooved pavement just so that I can feel the "wiggle" of the bike. They can be disconcerting, but they're really not dangerous. The tires I used were Dunlop K-81's, which were a classically good tire, for the time. They were advertised as having a Trigonic® shape, for good cornering grip. But this shape very likely made rain grooves much worse.

The bike performs like a slug on upgrades. Two times now I've had to run on reserve.  A larger amount in spare gas might help. Talked to Bureau of Reclamation man about Daniel S. Kalal. He said that records were kept of all personnel. Will investigate.

Ate breakfast - Dec. 31 --at Bob's "Best Food by a Dam Site".

Paid for one more night at the Desert Inn Motel. Skies seem to be more clear. Will try to leave Jan 1st for Death Valley. I doubt that it's raining there.

Gas supply may be problem. Will fill bike with oil from quart container and refill with gas. Bureau of Reclamation office seems to be closed for New Years

As mentioned, the Suzuki had a 2-stroke engine and therefore required oil along with gasoline. It had a separate oil tank on the side, so at least I didn't have to pre-mix the gasoline and oil at each stop. I carried a quart of 2-stroke oil in the rear trunk.  Carrying that extra quart container of gas wouldn't have gotten me very far, if I had to depend on it.

Took tour of dam. Very slick.  Taped talk on elevator and elsewhere. Should be noted that plaques drawn on reverse are on side of road behind guard rails.  Many cars are parked on dam. The guide said 96 died. Will check number.

I recorded the plaque in my notebook. The bronze plaque was inset into the rock on the Arizona side. This plaque has since been moved to the Nevada side as a result of spillway work. Other references give 112 as the number killed while working on the dam.  Even this number is probably too low, as other deaths that did occur were frequently blamed on the heat, and, therefore, not on the construction itself.

He said that was a low amount and Hoover had a good safety record.

Which is something of revisionist history. The dam did not have a particularly good record even for the standards of the day, and there was concern over the safety practices (or lack of them), at the time.

It would be best to come back with a good camera.  Too hazy for decent picture with Kodak.

All of the photographs were taken with a Kodak Instamatic.  Even under the best of conditions, the quality of pictures from this camera was marginal.

Suzuki looks like it was in a war.   Oiled rear wheel complete plus chain. Waxed bike.

This being well before the age of sealed o-ring chains, it required constant maintenance. Riding much of the time in rain, if I could have, I would have oiled it twice a day. I did all of the maintenance in the parking lot of the motel.

Ate dinner at Bob's.

As for the town... It has overgrown the original tri-plan layout. At top of hill is B. Rec office. City fans out below. The old residences are still here. Close to the office the homes are very large and nice. All are brick with T&C style tile. Homes farther out are smaller. Farthest out fewer houses have tile or brick. Many are duplexes and clusters of duplexes. There are a few "temporary" apartments on edge of city. One is now a retirement home. Very clean city. All lots have trees in (ash?). As they are 40 years old they are big.

Jan 1. Woke up and found all fogged in. Good sign. Around 8:00 fog clear. Very nice. Will get some pictures of dam and go on to Death Dalley anyway.

Clutch clip broke near dam. Spent over hour repairing.

Roadside breakdowns these days don't faze me a bit. But this one had me on edge until I was able to fix it.  This motorcycle would be shifted well enough without using the clutch, but that didn't help when you had to come to a stop, or get moving from a standstill.  Luckily, in this case, it wasn't the clutch cable that broke, but the arm that connected to the transmission. There was a lightweight aluminum clip that had failed. The fix involved a length of wire that I wrapped tightly around the end-barrel of the clutch cable and then around the remainder of the arm. I didn't think that it would hold, but it did, for the rest of the trip.

Mi. - 27,044.

Ate breaklunch [a new word?] at Las Vegas. Very slow McDonald's.

Vegas is not pretty.

I was doing my best to just get through all the traffic lights of Las Vegas so that I wouldn't have to use the clutch. I babied it for a couple of hours, expecting it to break every time I pulled the lever in.  Of course, it never did.

Stop at Indian Springs. Mi. 27,120

Very dry.

Stop at Lathrop Wells - 27,167 mi., 1.8 gal.

Very arid, straight empty roads.


Made it to Death Valley. Stop at Zabriski Point. Will camp at Furnace Creek.

I first rode to Stovepipe Wells to check out the Sand Dunes campground, but that one was no longer open. I ate a dinner of whatever stuff I could buy in the general store there--the restaurant was not open. I also went through the museums and visitor center in Furnace Creek.

The ranger charged me 50¢ instead of $1.00. Note: A bigger bike would really help. It's not fun to have to always work at keeping the speed up. More bulk would be nice too. Biggest drawback of Suzuki is the short range. I will not be able to go to the "Race Track" because of this. It only has an out-and-back radius of 50+ miles;   less, if the road is rugged or steep.

I am shifting a minimal amount at upper gears due to the repairimentioned before. It was fixed with wire. I thought it was the clutch cable that broke. I don't know what I would have done if it were.  If I were well prepared, I would carry a spare along with brake and throttle cables.  The Dunlop Roadmasters are great. Saddle bags would really be great. Duffel bags can be a drag. I could really get to like touring around if I had either a BMW or a GL-1000 Honda with full fairing

Nice guesses; wrong answer.


Jan 2, Went to Desolation Canyon.   Went to Eagle Borax works on dirt road. There is a Devils Playground, Devils Cornfield, Devils Gold Course, and now the park service has made the Devils Highway.

Went to Bad Water Mi. - 27,333.

Will see if I can't sleep in some canyon to avoid paying the dollar required at the campgrounds.

I cannot believe how absolutely broke I was on this trip. I don't remember how much I started out with, but it sure wasn't enough. I was unable to cash a check anywhere in Death Valley (this was long before the days of ATMs). A nice, older couple with an Airstream trailer parked next to my camping spot took pity on me and made some popcorn for me.

Stopped at Natural Bridge. A trail bike would be much, much better for some of these roads

I rode on some really horrible roads while in the park. The wash-boarding on the West road was fearsome.  The best technique was to just twist the throttle open and ride over the tops at a fairly high speed. Of course that meant that the brakes were useless (the tires only touching across the tops of the wash-boarded ground), but it did seem to work.

Went on Artist's Drive.

The photographs, below were of several of the unpaved canyon roads that I took. I would ride up the road until it either ended, or the bike was becoming unsuitable, and then climb up the sides of the canyons.  This was a very enjoyable day--ride wherever I wanted, and it was all new.  In some of the shots you may be able to see my motorcycle as a speck on the road. It seemed that I almost had the entire park to myself.




 At the Eagle Borax works along the West Road.

You really can't tell by the picture, but this road (across the salt flats) was one of those roads that was horribly wash-boarded. I think I stopped here for the rest, as much as to get the photograph.


The sign says "Road not Maintained." As the day wore on, I started exploring roads that I would have avoided earlier in the day.


I did have some concern for the fairing integrity (and the whole bike, for that matter) as I rode on some very rough roads. Didn't have any problems, though.

One of the old borax-hauling engines at Furnace Creek.


I surmised that the ranger wouldn't be on duty all night, so I came into camp late in the evening. This way I don't have to pay and can still see slides and things. Have three dollars cash and maybe 1 or 2 in change.

This was all I had to buy gas to get home; I didn't have enough for food.

Will go to Las Vegas and find a AAA station to cash check.

This was never done. I didn't record it in the journal, but it snowed that night and I had to sleep on a park bench under the eaves of the visitor center. I don't know how often it snows in Death Valley, but it sure caught me by surprise! I was trying to sleep next to my motorcycle, in the campground, but, as the snow came down, I had to collect my sleeping bag, and carry it over to the visitor center.  Certainly, nobody bothered me as I tried to get some sleep on that bench.

Left Death Valley 3rd.

Arrived home 8:15. Mi. 28,001.   Total miles of trip 1,674 mi. Met many people and trip was for most part without problem.

The original plan was to take a couple of days for the ride back to Sacramento (the same as the ride out), but I did the whole thing straight; riding well into the night.

This trip was a great learning experience. I still cannot believe how little cash I took, and how I was unprepared financially to stay in the motel in Boulder for two nights due to bad weather.  Rather obvious lessons, you might think.


last edit: 2/19/2005