RIDING FAST AND LIVING SLOW IN THE EASTERN SIERRA
Words by Ben Giese | Photography by Drew Martin
The punishing late-summer sun beats down on the back of my neck as the rev-limiter on my XR650 screams for dear life. I have no speedometer on this machine, but I’m clicking through the gears with the throttle twisted to the stop as we skim across the soft desert basin at full speed. Faster and faster into the 110-degree furnace just north of Death Valley. There is no town, no cell service, no shade and not a cloud in the sky for miles. One mistake out here would be a disaster, but if we can just ride fast enough, and far enough, we can find salvation in the mountains ahead.
I’m holding my breath through the endless cloud of dust as I chase five other crazy riders ripping flat-out into the badlands like a pack of wild coyotes. Their silhouettes warp and distort behind a distant mirage, dancing and shifting across the horizon like some strange heroes of the desert. But there are no heroes out here. No egos. Just new friends, old bikes, good vibes and five days to kill exploring the beautiful Eastern Sierra.
It all started back in the spring with a text from my buddy Drew Martin, a photographer from Huntington Beach, California, who had been quietly mapping out a dream route up Highway 395 into the heart of the Eastern Sierra. Drew has been exploring this region for as long as he can remember, discovering epic new locations with each adventure. His plan for this trip was to pack everything on the back of our bikes and connect a bunch of his favorite spots with hundreds of miles of remote dirt roads, camping all along the way.
In Drew’s words, “It’ll be a dream trip for the crew, with swim holes, creek crossings, epic high-elevation views and fast low-valley roads. Big trees, no trees, hot springs, cool springs and some good eatin’ spots. There will surely be broken shit, makeshift replacement parts and the kitchen sink. We’ll sleep in the dirt, get lost and probably run out of gas. The whole deal.” I was sold.
So, Drew and I kept the conversation rolling, and by late summer we were finally meeting up with his band of Southern California misfits at a little burrito spot in the desert to kick off the ride. Joining us for the trip was Noah Culver, a film producer living in San Diego; Jay Reilly, a photographer and director based in Carlsbad; and the roommates from Oceanside, Alex Ritz and Johnny Russy, who both work as motorcycle adventure guides and photographers.
Looking at this crew was like flashing back in time. They were all dressed to the nines in a cool vintage style, with fun-loving attitudes to match. A real run-what-you-brung kind of group that cares more about having a good time than having fancy equipment. It’s rare to find such like-minded people, and it’s truly special to get the chance to share an unforgettable experience like this together.
We kicked off the ride at the hottest time of the day, during the hottest part of the summer, in the midst of an intense heat wave in the hottest part of the country. I’m not sure exactly what we were thinking – maybe we’ve all hit our heads a few too many times – but our bikes were pointed west toward the Sierra with the promise of higher altitudes and cooler temps. We were all sparkling clean and laced up in fresh Danner boots, but that wouldn’t last very long. Within a few miles, every inch of our bikes and bodies would be caked in dust, and the adventure we had been anticipating all summer was finally off and running.
The Sierra Nevada is home to several national parks, wilderness areas and national monuments. Those include Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, as well as Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks, and Devils Postpile National Monument, just to name a few. But as beautiful as those places are, we weren’t as interested in the mainstream attractions. We wanted to explore the lesser-known corners of the Eastern Sierra. The places you couldn’t find on a map. The spots you only hear about through word-of-mouth. We wanted to take the backroads, the long way through, far away from influencers, tour buses and gift shops.
I went into this with no idea about the kind of extreme elevation changes we were going experience on this trip, but for reference, Mount Whitney, which towers at an elevation of 14,505 feet, is only 85 miles away as the crow flies from the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. On a route like this, you can expect to see five different life zones, each characterized by the completely unique plant and animal habitats at different elevations. From the hot and dry pinyon-sagebrush zone where we started, we would ride up through the lower and upper pine-forested montane zones, then eventually higher into the colder and more desolate subalpine and alpine zones.
Every passing mile was like a doorway into a new world. Like riding through the barren deserts of Arizona and suddenly being transported to the red rock canyons of Utah, then to the rolling green hills of Montana and eventually the rugged mountains of Colorado. And that vast diversity of terrain and climate is felt even more acutely when traveling on a bike, completely exposed to the world around you and at the mercy of the ever-changing elements.
After some hot and dusty miles up the mountain and a few good swimming holes along the way, we arrived at our first camp spot just as the sun dipped below the horizon. An infinite blanket of stars lit up the sky as we set up camp and reflected on the beauty of the wilderness around us. There’s something magical about spending time the mountains. The crisp, clean air is healing somehow, and the smell of the pines just makes you feel at ease. We went to bed early that night as a gentle breeze washed over our bodies, and we drifted off into peaceful dreams to the sound of crickets.
There was an unfamiliar chill in the air when we woke up that next morning – a far cry from the heat of the desert the day before. I could sense the end of summer for the first time. The inevitable change of seasons that always reminds me how temporary this all is. Soon these mountains would be covered in snow, and we would be back in the grind of life at home. But for now, we can enjoy these golden moments before they float away like the leaves of autumn. We sat by the bikes and brewed some coffee, then walked over to a nearby hot spring to watch the sunrise and soak up the warmth of the earth. Just what the doctor ordered before another long day in the saddle.
We would spend that morning following Drew through more spectacular miles of remote forest roads, winding up and down the mountains through dense trees and vibrant wildflower meadows. Slower, tighter sections turned into high-speed dirt roads. The sky was blue, the birds were chirping, and we enjoyed this blissful ride until we arrived at another epic swimming hole near the town of June Lake. We would spend that afternoon on the lake, cheering and laughing like little kids as we flipped, flailed and belly-flopped off a rope swing. The sun was shining, the beers were flowing and the vibes were at an all-time high. There’s something nice about having nothing to do and nowhere to be, when you can simply sit back and watch the clouds float by.
It would be another peaceful night sleeping under the stars. Another crisp morning in the mountains. Another delicious camp coffee. Another fun day of riding bikes with friends. Rinse and repeat. Life is so simple this way, when you can escape the money-machine and just breathe in the fresh air. When you can let go of the modern distractions that cause us so much anxiety and exist purely in the present moment. These thoughts really came to surface for me the following morning as we rode passed the historic ghost town of Bodie. The abandoned streets and decaying structures of the town felt like yet another reminder of how temporary this all is, and the importance of enjoying this moment.
Our route back down the mountain was magnificent. We said goodbye to the pines and followed an endless and desolate road that snaked and carved its way through the vast and expansive landscape. The views were stunning, but you could feel the temperature begin to rise as we rode farther and farther into the depths of the desert, as 80 degrees became 90, 100, 110 – and beyond – into the land of the blazing sun.
At this point in the trip, Noah’s bike was sputtering, and he was giving it his all just to make it to our final destination. Johnny’s seat fell off somewhere along the way, and it was being held on by zip ties. My luggage rack broke, and my bags were about to fall off my bike, and I had a pair of vice grips clamped to my handlebars to replace a broken front brake lever. My lips were chapped, and my body was completely dried out as the scorching hot air sucked the last bit of moisture from my skin. The beauty and comfort of the mountains was now a distant memory, and the harshness of the desert began to take hold. It was back to survival mode. Ride as fast as you can, as far as you can. Overcome the discomfort, and the destination will be that much more rewarding.
Through some treacherous rock gardens and a few deep silt beds, we limped our bikes across the valley into our final camp spot. A tiny little oasis in the middle of nowhere, with a few large shade trees and a pond with fresh water flowing out of the ground. Drew came skidding in to a stop, jumped off his bike, stripped off his gear as fast as possible, and then sprinted to launch himself into the water with a big splash. Alex, Jay and I were laughing right behind him as we jumped in, and a few minutes later Johnny came rolling in with his shirt off and a celebratory “YEWWW!”
We cracked open some cold beers and gave a cheers to an unforgettable ride around the Eastern Sierra. The sun began to set over the valley, and the hot brown hell around us came to life in a spectrum of vibrant color. Suddenly it felt like heaven, and as the peak of Mount Whitney was illuminated in bright pink in the background, I finally understood the nickname “Range of Light.” In the distance, we could see a golden plume of dust from a large herd of elk roaming through the valley. Noah told us how it was the last herd left in this region, and it made me think about this group of guys. A dying breed. Still wandering, exploring and hanging on to an old way of living.
I’m so thankful that my motorcycle has introduced me to these people, and that we could share this time together, away from the nerve-shaken world. That we had this opportunity to step back, breathe, live simply, and enjoy some unforgettable moments in the Eastern Sierra.