Paul Andersen: Confronting the motorized “wimp” factor |

Paul Andersen: Confronting the motorized “wimp” factor

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

We rode our fully loaded mountain bikes into Ballarat, a remote, ramshackle outpost in the most desolate part of Death Valley. Ballarat marks the fringe of civilization in the far desert reaches of California, near the metropolis of Trona, places known to only the few.

It was near Ballarat where Charles Manson was holed up after orchestrating the ritualistic murder of actress Sharon Tate and seven others in 1969. The cult killer’s hideout at the old Barker Camp was nestled up a hidden canyon where a spring made life possible for early miners and filled a crude swimming pool used by Manson and his lethal “family.”

Manson’s old Dodge Power Wagon, a weathered relic up on blocks at Ballarat, had all the trappings of a bizarre and macabre shrine. The austere scene was shadowed by sere desert ridges rising over 11,000 vertical feet from the salt flats of the valley floor.

Dusty and grimy from four days on dirt roads, Graeme and I were surprised to be informed that a letter was waiting for us at the Ballarat store. It was handed over by the quirky proprietor, a wild-eyed desert rat named “Rocky,” who is known for his annual “Freedom Days” debauch and the moonshine he crafts from home-sprouted corn.

The letter was addressed simply: “Bicycle Guys.” It was scrawled by a man we had met four days earlier at an even more remote camp in Warm Springs Canyon, far from anything we ever associated with California. The note was hurriedly printed with a dull lead pencil on the back of a “Freedom Days” flier.

“This is Lee, met you at Warm Spr. Resort. Send me some pics of your trip. And I’m curious about your age. I’m 60, so your trip is inspiring.” It was signed “Dezertman” and included his email address.

Lee had driven his customized off-road truck up to our Warm Springs camp beneath the most enormous tamarisk Graeme and I have ever seen. A warm spring flowed past our tents with 80-degree water that once filled a swimming pool at this long defunct mining compound, former headquarters for a talc mine that profited from baby powder in the 1930s.

Lee is a Californian who has been exploring Death Valley’s high desert for 20 years. He gazed at our fully loaded bikes with a sense of awe, acknowledging that we were much closer to the experience of nature than he could ever be in his truck.

I wrote to Lee as soon as we got home, asking why two road-grimy, Colorado bike tourers inspired him. He wrote back immediately:

“I just turned 60, so seeing you guys on your bikes amazed me and made me feel like a wimp in my truck when you two were really out there with no engine to carry you through. It was inspiring to me because I was beginning to think my days of doing something like bike touring were probably over. Also, I really like the idea of being close to nature without the noise and distraction of a vehicle, and I can only guess that the feeling of accomplishment would be tremendous.”

I’m 67. Graeme is 71. At Lee’s age of 60, we were just getting into our stride with bike touring. Every spring for the past 30 years Graeme and I have been pedaling the desert southwest, plus parts of Europe, getting as remote as possible on our antiquated, rigid-frame mountain bikes. Age has never been a deterrent to our adventures.

I wrote to Lee: “Bike touring is a pure expression of freedom and adventure gained by physical effort, mental discipline and a kind of blind faith in favorable outcomes. Our touring skills (what to bring, how much food, repair challenges, pacing, finding water, etc.) have evolved over the years through trial and error, sometimes at considerable cost.”

Undeterred by my subtle caution, Lee replied: “If you ever decide to do another desert bike tour in the Death Valley area I may have a loop in mind that could interest you … and maybe I could come with you. Best regards, Lee.”

I wrote back: “You’re never too old to start…”

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at