Fear, Loathing and Monkey Sailors in Death Valley.
WORDS Jonny Cazzola IMAGES Kevin Pak & Jonny Cazzola
While out in California this past November, I reached out to see if my good friend Kevin Pak, Art Director at British Customs, and his team were up for loading a couple of their bikes with our motorcycle luggage and heading out on an adventure field test. We have a series of panniers, a moto-duffle, and a tank/tail pannier that I wanted to try out in the hot, dusty desert. Armed with a custom 2011 Triumph Thruxton built up to look like a pretty mean street tracker and my personal favorite — a custom 2016 Triumph Street Twin with the high front mudguard, 2-into-1 exhaust, and other parts that make it look like a modern desert racer — we had a nighttime test run through downtown LA, where I was introduced to the grittier, behind-the-scenes side of the city. It was a welcome break from the busy, multi-lane, deathtrap freeways I’d spent the last few days traveling around on, and a good introduction to what was shaping up to be a really interesting trip into Death Valley.
On Friday morning, my girlfriend Tori and I picked up a new Triumph Scrambler 1200 thanks to my friend Mark from LA Moto, who very kindly pulled some strings and found one I could use for the weekend. Then we rode over to Highland Park to meet the third rider, Eric Bach, and his beautiful, slightly older, custom desert-racer-style Triumph Scrambler. It felt like it was finally all coming together — good weather, good people, and three fun-looking bikes to play with. We set off at around 2pm after some last-minute preparations. It was already quite late in the day, but we really wanted to take the winding, 75-mile scenic route through the Angeles National Forest, so we headed slowly north towards our first destination: a small campsite approximately 240 miles north of LA, at the southwestern entrance to Death Valley National Park.
It was December, so the night was drawing in pretty fast. We knew we’d be riding late, so with a short pit stop for fuel and to warm up over pie and coffee, we settled into the ride and gently hummed along the epic desert roads as civilization faded and the sun slowly set into the mountain-silhouetted desert around us. We rode well into the night to reach our campsite and maintain our schedule.
It felt like a long ride after such a busy day, but it was surreal — and invigorating— to think that in just a few hours, we had hustled through a bustling LA, ridden through the highest point in Los Angeles County, and were now close to the lowest elevation in all of North America. We reached the camp without a glitch, just in time to grab pizza and a beer before the camp shop closed. The first night was relaxed as we set up camp, made a fire, and got to know each other a bit more before deciding to get a good night's sleep ahead of the busy days of riding to come.
After arriving in the dark, we were excited to wake up early and see what was around us. But to everyone’s frustration, we were awakened at 2am — and then again at 6am — when our camp was suddenly surrounded by a Boy Scout troop who rolled up in the middle of the night, Scout Master General barking orders at his team of reluctant disciples, who all surely wanted to be sleeping as much as we did. The ground was rock hard, which didn’t deter them from trying to bash metal tent pegs into the ground all night, the loud whacks alternating with whines and groans just a few feet away from our heads. We all agreed that the next night's camp must be as far away from people as possible.
The surrounding landscape was breathtaking — desert as far as the eye could see. It really does feel like you’re at the bottom of a dried-up ocean, surrounded by a seemingly endless boundary of mountain silhouettes. It was 7am and the temperature was already starting to rise; with record air temperature of 134 degrees and less than three inches of annual precipitation, this is one of the hottest and driest places in the world.
Death Valley is also known for its gold and borax mining. Borax — sodium borate — is produced by repeated evaporation and is used in everything from detergents and cosmetics to enamel glazes, and as an alkali in photographic developing. It even has anti-fungal properties. Borax is also used as part of the gold mining process, reducing the need for toxic mercury. As the industry declined and active mines closed, the previous settlers had no choice but to move on, leaving many of the mines and mining towns derelict — and highly toxic.
The first day, we wanted to visit the Barker Ranch, where Charles Manson took over a small mining village, but learned that most of it had burned down and that there were much more interesting places to see. Instead, we rerouted towards a couple of ghost mining towns dotting our route through the national park.
The first was Darwin, which initially seemed derelict, but as we got closer to the center of the small town, we realized that people appeared to still live there. The majority of the rundown town looked like everyone had just picked up and left one day, leaving everything they couldn’t carry. It was hard to tell which houses were inhabited and which weren’t; front doors and garages were left wide open, like someone may live there but wasn’t home. You could tell that the more free-spirited, off-the-grid types would have relocated to places like this in the '60s. There were knackered old Beetles, buses and incredible old American cars everywhere, sinking slowly into the ground.
We didn’t see many other people on motorcycles; mainly just groups of friends ripping through the desert on small ATVs or tricked-out overlanders. They were all very willing to share the best routes and trails tthrough the mountains to neighboring villages or mines. One suggestion stood out more than others: a small semi-derelict village at the foothills of several disused mines, surrounded by mountains, with a remote campsite run by a friendly old chap. We had firm instructions that if we did go there, we absolutely had to try his homemade moonshine. You don’t pass up a tip like that on an impromptu road trip.
Kevin needed to carry quite a bit of camera equipment, so we loaded his Street Twin with as much Malle luggage as we could strap onto it, while Eric and I were all-terrain testing the new Malle jackets and trousers, set to launch this year in the U.S. The bikes and kit looked great together, especially when we started to go off-piste into some of the infamous trails, each turn luring us in with the promise of even better turns and trails to explore around the next corner, and then the next. With the sun setting at around 4:30pm, days were pretty short and night was drawing in, so we pushed on towards the second night's camp along a back route: a rugged dirt road with endless dusty trails to peel off, explore, and rejoin the main track a bit further along. This is where we got to really play with the three bikes.
As we rolled up to the old village, we stopped at what looked like it could be the entrance to a campsite. There was a small, dark, half-collapsed shack with a large front porch; on the porch we saw a piano, rocking chair, and a small table with a couple of empty beer bottles. As we shut the engines off, a dark shadow emerged from the dilapidated doorway. It was like a scene from a horror film — I was waiting for the “You’re not from ‘round here” line. Eric quickly stepped up and asked the burning questions: “Do you sell moonshine?" and "Is there somewhere we can pitch a tent or two?”
A dim light flicked on and we were welcomed by a very friendly, large chap, who we later found out wasn’t the moonshiner. "Of course you can," he said in a welcoming voice. "Come on in! You look like you could use a drink.” Phew ... perhaps we weren’t all going to die in the desert after all. The maker wasn’t around at that moment, but his moonshine was, and the chap sold us a large jam jar full of the special apple-infused spirit. There was a shot glass sunk in the bottom of it. "That’s for the second jar,” he remarked. "If you made it, you’re going to need it!” I’m not quite sure what he meant by that — nor what the percentage of alcohol was, or if it was appropriate to ask. So we just laughed as he pointed us in the direction of tonight's camp: an almost dark field in the middle of the moonlit desert.
It wasn’t quite the remote and peaceful, star-gazing desert camp we were hoping for; there was a subtle and distant sound of pumping house music. But it was too late to go anywhere else, and deep down inside, we all have a little party butterfly inside us, just waiting to flutter its little disco wings, right? We camped about as far away from the current residents as politely possible — I’m English after all. It was close enough to be in the camp, but not so close that we’d have to integrate if they were a bunch of lunatics. The camp was full of massive RVs, ATVs, and crazy, Mad Max-style, homemade desert racing machines; imagine four wheels mounted onto a stripped car chassis, sprung with huge off-road suspension, a roll cage, and a huge V8 engine bolted to the back. As we started to unpack and set our tents up, a couple of these machines drove up and did a quick lap around us, obviously scoping us out, but without stopping to talk to us. A bit strange, but we were newcomers to their camp. We could hear children, so they were probably making sure we weren’t lunatics either.
Once our camp was set up, we made a fire and out of nowhere, Eric was cooking at least three incredible-looking meals at once. We figured it was a good time to have a little taste of the infamous moonshine; naturally, a small amount of liquor makes for a comfier pillow. It also helps to pluck up the courage to go and scope out the new neighbors. The moonshine jar circled the fire several times while the food was cooking and we all wound down from the days ride, sharing stories about adventures past and new. I was really happy to be there, almost immobilized by this new and strange environment, the crackling fire, the unknown neighbors, new friends chatting and already sounding like old friends.
My hands were still a bit numb from a day of vibrations. As the smell of food cut into the fresh desert air and the temperature fell, we rinsed the dirt out of our teeth with cold beer, the dust settling into the dark sky around us. I took a break from watching the flames dance and crackle to lean back and soak in the stars. I always forget how incredible the stars look in the desert; it’s good to feel small for a moment, like nothing matters, like the world isn’t such a fucked-up place. I was happy to the core.
As the night went on, we noticed the buzz and beat from the neighboring camp get louder, and what looked like lasers and smoke coming from the heart of the noise. I’m not sure if we decided on our own or the moonshine decided for us, but we all agreed it was time to integrate. We grabbed a pocket beer or two, took another sip of the moonshine, and headed towards the larger fire in the middle of the main camp.
There were a few games being played around the main fire, plus gatherings around some of the biggest RVs and motorhomes I’d ever seen. As we started chatting with fellow campers, we learned that the 200-plus people here were all part of the same club; they were derelict mine enthusiasts that had traveled from all over the United States for their annual meeting. Once a year, they load their RVs, ATVs, and desert racers with mine exploration kit and head out to a prearranged location — this year, Death Valley. There was a wide range of ages and interest levels, all of whom ventured thousands of miles to come and spend a few weeks pitched up in the desert, exploring trails that led into derelict mines to see what they could discover. Their interest was not only in what the miners of the past extracted from the land, but in the techniques and tools that were used. I’m sure that some of the crowd was just looking for an excuse to blast around in their desert race machines, but a lot of the people we met were serious enthusiasts who traded precious stones all over the world.
We edged closer and closer to the beat, which appeared to come from some kind of giant wooden unit kitted out with speakers, a smoke machine, and lasers, surrounded by a ring of quad bikes and a few people dancing in the dust. As we got closer still, Eric took the plunge and half shimmied, half danced his way over with us lot in tow. The DJ — who looked like he’d also been at the moonshine, wearing nothing but a monkey onesie and a sailor hat — stood behind what I could only describe as a formerly state-of-the-art, 1940s television entertainment system, about 13 feet wide by 5 feet tall. Monkey Sailor was pumping out '90s house beats while his mate manually controlled a makeshift laser and smoke performance. After a few high-fives and introductions, he told us how they had "modernized" the old entertainment system with subwoofers, electronics, CDJs, and a light show, and dragged it to wherever the club would meet and entertained whoever was willing to be entertained — which in this case, was us. We all kicked up dust, dancing on quad-bikes podiums, partying until the wee hours while being regaled with tales of mining adventures and hatching a half-baked plan to stage a rave in an abandoned mine with DJ Monkey Sailor.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of someone shuffling around our camp and rummaging through our things. It was early; my head was pounding and the light was so bright I could barely open my eyes. All I could see were the figures of what looked like 15 people going through our things. I rubbed my eyes; once I was able to focus better I realized it wasn’t 15 people — it was eight or nine donkeys going through our food and luggage. What on earth were all these donkeys doing all the way out here? And what the hell was in that moonshine?
As soon as we stirred, the donkeys casually trotted out of the camp, taking whatever food was left out from the night before — a pretty wild site to wake up to. I later found out that burros were introduced in the late 1800s, many brought up from South America to help support the local mining industry. They were a vital part of the workforce, needed to help grind rocks and pull carts. After the gold rush and as mines started to close, many of the animals were released into the desert, where they either died, or — in the case of this herd's ancestors — learned to find food, breed, and live off the land ... or leftover pasta.
I would have still been asleep if not for the intense desert sun. We decided to pack our things and head out, stopping first at the welcome cabin, where the scary porch wasn’t scary anymore. We finally met the maker of this potent liquor. He offered us more, but we decided we’d had just the experience we needed until next time, and politely declined.
The route out was about five miles of track to the road, and just over an hour's ride to our next destination: Trona Pinnacles. I’d seen pictures of this landmark, and it was high on Kevin’s list. On the way, we passed through a small mineral town called Searles Valley. It was beautifully photogenic, looking like what would have been an active mineral mining town, but now mostly desolate, the houses appearing to be abandoned. It seems that the area, once an active borax mining company, was polluted with arsenic, which is reported to have killed migratory birds and poisoned plant workers. We slowly cruised on, stopping at a local mini market for snacks and clean socks. We were all pretty delirious from either the lack of sleep, dehydration, arsenic — or possibly a little too much moonshine. Either way, motion and the cool, soothing air was in our favor as we headed on to Trona Pinnacles.
The track leading into the Pinnacles was approximately five incredibly fun miles of bumpy, dusty trails, rising and falling through the endless desert, looping back and forth over disused railway tracks as the Pinnacles started to appear as small peaks in the distance. They don’t look like much until you’re right up next to them. The trail suddenly dropped down and there they were, the tufa spires — some as high as 140 feet — emerging from the base of a lake bed, formed millennia ago by springs interacting with other bodies of water when this was an ocean.
We rattled the bikes through and around the Pinnacles for a while to get our desert fill — and a few cool photos — before heading back into LA. The ride back into the city was long but exhilarating, a welcome way to wind down and reflect on three incredible days that felt more like three weeks. I knew they would feel more like three minutes as when we got back to reality.
I was very happy with how our gear performed. It all held up nicely and fit the bikes well, and although it was coated in dust immediately, the durable matte black waxed canvas was easy to clean with a damp cloth, making it look like new. We’re now developing some of our key pieces in the Moto Collection in a refined and heavyweight tan waxed canvas that will perform exceptionally well in the desert climate, reflecting the heat and hiding the dust.
Since the trip I’ve mapped out our impromptu route. The alluring roads, trails and landscapes of Death Valley kept us dancing around the western edge, barely scratching the surface of over 5,000 square miles of National Park. The basic planning and preparation was imperative to ensure we didn’t get stuck unprepared or were too optimistic with distances, but it was the spontaneity of the unknown and finding the unexpected places, trails, and people that made the trip so unique and special — and has us looking forward to the next one.