Prepare to be Blown Away
Just a couple of hours’ drive from the dark heart of Las Vegas lies the remote desert sanctuary The Oasis at Death Valley
Article by The Papa Gorilla
The ineluctable pull of Las Vegas draws in couples, families, stags, hens, inveterate gamblers and party-goers of every hue; but zoom out just a little on the map and you’ll see that this bright-lit man-made mecca of slots, wheels, tables and shows is a brash beacon within a desert landscape of natural wonders the list of which alone is enough to inspire genuine awe: the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park towards the East; Red Rock Canyon to the immediate West and a little further over the ominous sprawl of Death Valley National Park.
After a several days on business in New York and a further few days in Las Vegas my head was spinning from sights, sounds and stimuli; not all of which were entirely welcome. I was positively itching to escape from artifice – however alluring – and nourish that part of my spirit that aches equally for peace, quiet and the sound of a thumping v-twin engine.
A few years ago I was doing a filming job that took me to 14 National Parks and areas of natural beauty in the space of nine weeks. All of them were in North America: the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Niagara Falls, Jasper and Banff, Glacier Bay and Monument Valley to name but a few. My eyes were truly opened to the crowning glories of this vast and varied continent. Think what you like about any aspect of North American culture and/or politics; these folks are custodians are some of the most breath-taking topographical assets you could ever hope to encounter.
Yet missing from my roster of visited and gawped-at natural wonders was the one and only Death Valley. Often had I read about or it and looked at it on maps, but never had the occasion or opportunity to head in that direction. Thus it was that, my work done in Las Vegas, I hopped straight into a cab to the north-west of the city and Escape Eagles, where I was welcomed by Ralph, who proffered a range of motorcycles – all Harley-Davidsons, of course – any of which would have been a worthy steed to take a Gorilla on a desert safari.
I picked out a black Heritage Softail Classic, packed my essentials into the saddlebags, fired up the thumping motor and headed out of town with a rising sense of excitement. Away from the city, I rode up through Mountain Springs, where I happened upon a monthly pig roast that draws in grizzled bikers from miles around, their visits commemorated upon the graffitied banknotes that paper all surfaces (ceiling included) of the famous Saloon.
I munched contentedly on pulled pork, slow-cooked chicken and beans, all steeped in various blends of herbs and spices that their chef mischievously declared to be more secret than those of the Colonel himself, surrounded by a cast of characters that could have been pulled straight from any two-bit biker movie. As I fired up the Heritage once more and pulled out of the lot in the company of an especially hardened group of riders, I couldn’t help but entertain the fantasy that I was en route to some illicit yet ultimately heroic adventure.
And adventure was not far round the corner. A straight and uneventful stretch took me to the improbably-named Pahrump (cue an infuriating half-hour of inane mental carol singing – “Come, they told me etc. etc.”). No one I met in Las Vegas had ever ventured into Death Valley, and most seemed surprised at the boldness of my intention so to do. The cabbie who had brought me to Ralph’s place was full of dark and ominous warnings about filling my tank with gas and saddlebags with water at the last available opportunity, and thus I did (dutifully, and not without trepidation) in Pahrump.
A left onto Bell Vista Avenue took me out of town and I soon realised that I really wasn’t in Kansas (ok, Nevada) any more. By now I was riding due west into the dipping sun, on a pin-straight road in the middle of a vast scrub plain in the Amarposa Valley; almost no traffic in either direction and amidst a rising heat. My conservative (yes, sensible) decision to wear a padded jacket was starting to become an uncomfortable one, and I applied a little extra pressure to the throttle in a vain attempt to generate some cooling airflow.
The passing scrub and mirages on the road ahead were increasingly mesmerising and it was a while before I noticed a white truck in my rear-view mirrors. It tailed me, matching my pace whether slower or faster, all the way to Death Valley Junction where, as I paused to get my bearings I realised with a lump in my throat that the van was brightly emblazoned with sheriff’s insignia. With more than a suspicion that my air conditioning might have required a few more mph than were suggested on the roadside signs, I awaited the flash of lights to pull me to the kerb, but clearly the sheriff had either strayed out of his jurisdiction or had simply been enjoying the bassy notes of the Heritage’s mighty pipes: he headed on north whilst I hung a left onto the Death Valley approach road.
At this point I ceased to see a single vehicle in either direction. The road was gently descending, the landscape becoming more and more dramatic and the temperature slowly rising. I paused at the park’s entrance sign for a vital photo op, but the absence of other visitors augmented my sense of entering the unknown. Signs told me that an entrance fee would be due at the upcoming kiosk a few miles further on; but I parked up, dismounted into the heat of the still air and found the kiosk shuttered and deserted. Had some as-yet unannounced disaster befallen the valley? Was I heading into the devastation of a scorched apocalypse? Only one way to find out….
Despite the advancing hour and a strong desire to reach my resting place – the Oasis at Death Valley, about which I had heard so many wondrous things – I couldn’t resist the turn-off to the scenic Zabriskie Point just a few miles before it, knowing that the setting sun would likely provide some of the most dramatic vistas. My visions of the post-apocalypse were swiftly debunked by the RVs and SUVs in the car park at the base of a ramp leading to the viewpoint, with shorts-wearing camera-toting parksters merrily wandering up and down.
I parked the Harley as ostentatiously as possible, before running excitedly up the slope to see what I could see. And wow, you never forget your first glimpse of Death Valley… Off to the left are rock formations resembling lunar sand dunes, ranging from a bright white foreground through vivid yellow to charcoal grey. Ahead, one’s gaze passes over miniature monochrome ridges and peaks, beyond which lies the entrancing expanse of the valley itself and the rocky hills beyond.
Having drunk my fill of this spectacular landscape, I remounted and went booming off down the winding road cut through the rocks in the final miles leading to Furnace Creek. As you round the final bend you are hit by the simultaneous shocks of the valley floor ahead and the explosion of colour on your right-hand side, with the Oasis at Death Valley set up on the hillside with a festival of date palms standing proud beneath it.
So impressive was the spectacle that I rode on down past the hotel entrance simply to take in its full magnificence as viewed from below, the terraced frontage standing proud over the valley, with the concentrated garden of date palms partially obscuring the left side of the edifice.
The sloping hotel driveway leads up to a sumptuous geometric garden with a fountain bubbling at its centre, surrounded by leafy palms casting long shadows in the evening light. On the terrace in front of the hotel reception sat guests in comfy chairs beneath a shady pergola, kept cool (enough) by the light spray from overhead misters. The whole scene conjured thoughts of a colonial-era plantation mansion, where adventurous travellers on some grand tour might pause to be pampered as they recovered from exposure to unaccustomed climes.
My room was in keeping – spacious, newly refurbished and decked out to exacting standards – retaining a strong heritage feel without scrimping on modern comforts and conveniences. The bathroom had an understated opulence, with fine fittings and elaborate artistic tiling. The whole had a feeling of old money and earned luxury, a sumptuous refuge from the desert beyond the hotel perimeter.
A door from the room gave onto a sheltered terrace, from which one looks out between the tops of date palms below across the arid expanse of the valley floor, and down through the hotel garden, a cleverly irrigated splash of shady green hillside, carpeted in luscious grass, criss-crossed by neat narrow pathways leading down towards a pond at the foot of the garden, and through to the hotel pool.
Rarely has an evening dip been a more welcome prospect, and as the twilight started to fade I took a long cool shower outdoors beside the pool before sliding into the softly illuminated water to ease any tension from the ride. The pool is a fine size, flanked by colonnades, segmented into semi-private areas in which guests may lounge, read, sun themselves or find some shade. It being evening, either side of the pool log fires had been lit and the flames danced enchantingly. I took a moment to sit beside the fire and drink in the moment; reflecting on the almost incredible juxtaposition of my immediate surroundings and the vast desert that encompasses the Oasis at Death Valley for so many miles in all directions.
The cosy hotel bar, in hunting lodge style, was buzzing with quiet conversation as guests recounted tales of the things they had seen and done during the day. The adjacent dining room had a similar atmosphere of relaxed and unboisterous enjoyment. The Oasis at Death Valley clearly attracts a discerning yet unpretentious crowd – a combination with which I feel at ease. I happily dined alone, observing those around me.
I shall not bore you with the details of my supper, beyond recommending most highly that you start with the roasted Deglet Noor dates. Stuffed with blue cheese, wrapped in prosciutto and glazed with a pomegranate reduction, they were simply exquisite. Had I known, I might have ordered the same dish for both main and dessert (which is not to say that I was disappointed by my filet mignon and bowl of fresh berries).
I had had vague thoughts of a pre-dawn departure to make the most of the morning, but my rest that night was uninterrupted for the first time in months, and I threw open the curtains to a sunny day (no great surprise) and the magnificent valley vista, no less arresting than it had been the day before when first I saw it.
Death Valley National Park is the largest of America’s National Parks outside Alaska (where Wrangell-St. Elias, Glacier Bay, Denali and Katmai dwarf all others). It covers an area well in excess of 5,000 square miles, and the opportunities for exploration are almost boundless. The Oasis at Death Valley is ideally situated as a base from which to head out in all directions to explore the sand dunes, majestic viewpoints, historic mines, salt flats, mountains, craters and ghost towns.
I had naively imagined that Death Valley might be a bit of a one-hit wonder – you’d take a look at the valley, feel the heat and feel that you’d “done” it (a turn of phrase I loathe more than almost any other). How wrong I was, and as I read up on the many sights and sites to which the park is home, I almost ached with regret that I only had a few hours to bomb around before I had to retrace my tyre tracks to Las Vegas.
No matter, I rolled out of the Oasis at Death Valley and swung onto the immaculate road to Badwater, racing along the valley floor before taking the turn-off onto Artist’s Drive, a 9-mile scenic loop cutting through the foothills of the Black Mountains, delighting in the echoing boom of the bike’s mighty pipes. I pulled in at the Artist’s Palette lookout, a superb vantage point from which to survey the colourful hillside: the rock formations stained orange, pink, brown and green by the metals in the rocks themselves.
I didn’t see another soul on the descent back to the valley floor, this time entertaining fantasies of the pioneer as I barrelled along circuitous channels between almighty rocks first explored by prospectors with a golden glint in their eye. I was once again stunned by the valley as it opened up before me, but didn’t pause too long as Las Vegas was once again calling – I knew that Ralph would be expecting me (or at least the Harley) back, and I had a plane to catch.
It was with a heavy heart that I passed The Oasis at Death Valley, yearning to make base camp there for another three or four days of exploration crowned with evenings of twilight swims and mouth-watering date platters.
I gunned it up and out past Zabriskie Point to Death Valley Junction and continued out across the arid Amarposa Valley to a final fill-up at Pahrump (a-pum-pum) and then on to Ralph’s place in north-west Las Vegas. I arrived with a beaming smile and a sense of incredulity that I could possibly have had such a fulsome adventure in the mere twenty-five hours since I had picked up the machine.
Enquires: The Oasis at Death Valley, CA-190, Death Valley, CA 92328, USA / www.oasisatdeathvalley.com