Obviously, leaving my girlfriend alone in the Mojave Desert wasn’t a good idea. But at least she had enough water. Well… she had some water….
I know; not a dating decision Dear Abby would have endorsed. But at this point, I didn’t have any choice…
We had ridden north from Primm, Nevada. Bright with reflected sunlight, a solar electricity generating tower concentrated the rays of the afternoon sun as we bounced past, winding up a rocky path into the parched hills. And Yvonne wasn’t happy.
It’s not my fault, I explained, again. Road conditions don’t show on maps, or the GPS. And it wasn’t like I had promised her a smooth, hard-packed surface when we set out that afternoon. Then again, I also hadn’t mentioned the possibility of melon-sized rocks and deep sand. And therein was the source of our problem. Or, depending on how you looked at it, I was the source of our problem. That was definitely the way she was looking at it.
When I was informed we were riding no farther that day – a message Yvonne delivered by stepping off her Yamaha XT225 and throwing herself on her back – I began setting up camp. We shrugged out of our riding gear and into something more comfortable. Actually, anything was more comfortable than armored jackets and pants in the heat of the desert.
While Yvonne reclined in her folding camp chair, plotting revenge, I cooked my trademark unexceptional dinner and looked over the bikes, her XT and my Husqvarna TE510. Loose bolts, soft tyres, luggage attachments, chain lube: I attended to the usual suspects, declaring we were ready for another day of riding; a statement that earned me a dark look from the other side of the cooking pot. Slowly, the sun settled over the broad valley, burnishing the scattered Joshua Trees with desert light, stretching long shadows from bushes of creosote and sage.
Dawn repeated the show, this time advancing right to left as we ate breakfast and packed our gear onto the bikes. The riding was more relaxed, and less rocky, winding across the high valley floor toward the rangy peaks on the northern horizon. We finally crested a ridge and found ourselves at the top of a rocky downhill. Descending into a wide canyon, the road deteriorated into a trail, and the trail soon degenerated into a dry river-bottom, called a ‘wash’ in the desert. It’s the place that would be submerged in water – if there ever was any water – but the rest of the time is knee-deep in sand and silt and gravel. And rocks. Usually, big rocks.
Waiting for Yvonne to finish picking her way through the technical descent behind me, I scouted for a hard-packed route through the canyon. I rode to the end of the wash, about 750 metres away, and back. There was no hard-packed route, and my riding partner has a congenital aversion to riding in sand. Butterflies, or a fidgety little squirrel or rabbit began weakly kicking at my stomach.
Then I heard the XT’s burbling exhaust note and turned to see Yvonne arriving at the wash, triumphant, but noticeably tiring. The rabbit really started going at it. This did not look promising.
Normally, when we encounter a fiendishly difficult bit of trail, I might ride one bike through and walk back to pilot the second one while Yvonne strolls the offending route. But it was hot. And she did not want to walk. So – well, let’s just say things quickly got hotter… and it had nothing to do with global warming. And let’s just leave it at that.
As we eventually ascended from that canyon and into the low mountains that had darkened the northern skyline all morning, we slowly regained our composure and the ability to speak civilly to each other. Aside from a brake pedal that looked like a steel pretzel tacked to the side of the XT’s little engine, no harm done. No lasting harm anyway.
Able once again to focus on the road ahead, I realized that the topographical map on my GPS seemed only marginally correlated to the maze of trails and roads we began intersecting. Once again, as the sun crept past its zenith overhead, I rode off to scout the way ahead.
And then the Husky stopped.
I know that’s kind of vague – ‘stopped’ – but that’s how it was. Vague, I mean. The bike just stopped. No tell-tale cough of fuel starvation, no revealing billow of smoke from the exhaust. I thumbed the starter fruitlessly a few times. Then, concerned that I would drain the battery, I flipped out the kick starter, stood on the pegs, and threw my weight into it….
Ah, there’s the problem: compression, as in, the bike didn’t have any. Employing all my extensive experience and diagnostic acumen, I rapidly and definitively determined that the Husky was no longer working.
Yvonne looked at me. I looked at Yvonne. We both looked at the empty desert around us.
Oh-oh. I’m proud to say we swiftly discarded our exasperation as unproductive and switched into our practiced problem-solving mode: we pulled out our mobile phones. And were rewarded with another mute, shared look. No signal. Zero bars. I was actually surprised my phone didn’t have an icon reading, “Oh-oh.”
A plan was in order. Scrolling the topo map loaded on my GPS, I located a grid pattern of roads, perhaps 20 kilometres north of our position. Unfolding the paper maps we also carried, we determined that forlorn arrangement of roads must be the town of Sandy Valley. So one of us had to ride there, find a friendly local with a four-wheel drive pickup, and arrange, well, a pick-up. Simple.
We unloaded the camping and cooking gear – and our meagre water supply – from the bikes. With only a rudimentary idea what direction to go should she need to walk out of the desert, no way to communicate with me (or anyone else), and only enough water for a single day, Yvonne coolly volunteered to remain with the broken Husky and set up camp. I wrote down our map coordinates and pointed to a nearby hill. If I didn’t return, she could climb up and phone 911 with her position, assuming the cell signal was stronger on top of that modest rise in the desert floor.
That word… assume… You know about that word, right?
I secured the GPS to the handlebars of the XT225. That rabbit was kicking at my stomach again, and, this time, I really didn’t like how it felt. But Yvonne was calm, probably looking forward to a mid-holiday vacation from me. Aware of the situation in which I was placing her, I couldn’t say I was surprised. Obviously, leaving my girlfriend alone in the Mojave Desert wasn’t a great idea. But at this point, I didn’t have any choice.
Tangled trails and dirt tracks tripped me up several times as I rode north. A good sign, in a way: the density and confusion of roads suggested a town must be nearby. And it was. Sandy Valley: population about the same as a really big Chinese buffet restaurant.
My first entreaty of a friendly truck-owning local was rebuffed. But he directed me to the ‘Idle Spurs.’ Every fading small town has a bar, the nucleus and repository of community culture, history and lore. Actually, Sandy Valley also had a library… but, as Mark Twain once said, I digress.
There were half a dozen patrons in the Idle Spurs on this sweltering weekday afternoon. Sensitive to the urgency of my mission, I made sure to order my cold beer with efficiency. I then commenced feeling guilty about Yvonne and her reserve of disagreeably warm drinking water. With that stage of the plan firmly in hand, I proceeded to the next phase: telling my tale of woe to the Idle drinkers. And they deserved that title: not one of them was willing to leave the cool dimness of the bar to help me. Or even a damsel in distress.
I caught the eye of the bartender, my worry mounting. She shrugged, not unkindly, but it was clear she had no solution to offer. Sitting at the bar, trying to regain that trouble-solving frame of mind, I pictured the damsel growing increasingly concerned as the afternoon passed.
“Hi’ve godda trut.”
I turned to see a man who could put children through college working as a Willie Nelson impersonator, leaning on the bar and peering at me over the rim of his glass.
Parsing his curious intonation, it dawned on me that he owned a truck and was offering to drive me into the desert to recover my bike. Oh, and Yvonne, of course. It was easy to recognize that this friendly old-timer was also speaking with some apparent difficulty. In a bar. In the middle of a weekday. Offering me a ride in his motor vehicle….
Again, I caught the bartender’s eye, sending her a mute question. She leaned over the bar and whispered to me, “Don’t worry: he’s not drunk. Ferill never even finishes a drink. He just talks like that. If he’s willing to help, you should take him up on it. He’s probably the most honest guy in town.”
The faded blue Chevrolet truck was listing like a schooner floundering on the rocks. Both right-side tyres were flat and the signal lights were dangling from their wires like fish on the line. But Ferill unearthed an air compressor from the flotsam in the yard and made quick work of the tyres. And we were on our way, the passenger-side door handle lying in my lap, where it had fallen when I pulled the door shut.
We drove about 10 metres before we stopped again. “Huh. Fergot sumthin,” Ferill muttered, opening his door. At least I was getting the hang of his unique conversational style.
He returned with a six-pack of beer and settled into the driver’s seat, twisting the cap off a bottle of Miller. Now we were on our way. Ferill knew the terrain and had no interest in the GPS I kept waving at him: he was navigating by my brief description of the little gulley where I had, um… deserted Yvonne.
When we hit the first rut in the dirt road, the glove compartment separated from the dashboard and landed in my lap.
“Don’ worry ‘bout dat,” Ferill said, as he lobbed his nearly full bottle of beer out the window and opened another one. The bartender certainly knew her patrons: over the next 24 hours, Ferill would have many opportunities to finish a drink. He never did. But I sure could have used one.
We talked as he piloted the wheezing Chevy one-handed through rocky gullies and sandy drifts, and I began to understand how genuine this man was. A story he was relating had him declaring fervently, “I don’t get mad ‘bout much – but you hurt my dog, I’m gonna beat you….”
I relaxed. My fate was safely in the hands of a man whose values I could appreciate. And then I heard the tyre blow.
A whistle of escaping air was clearly discernible, and, hanging out the window, I could see the right front was visibly flattening. I sank back into my seat and looked at Ferill. He shook his head. “Ain’ got no spare. Gotta jus’ keep goin’.”
So we did. The shrilling of the tire’s death knell diminished, then stopped. We bumped onwards for a time, the jarring of the truck’s cab growing increasingly more violent. Then began the tortured grinding of metal on rock. I set the glove compartment on the floor and leaned out the window again. The tyre was gone. Nothing but a ragged fringe of rubber remained, like a post-pubescent beard ringing the wheel’s chin.
Our pace slowed until we were creeping slowly south towards the spot where I had left Yvonne that afternoon. Ferill began to look worried. Flinging a half-drained Miller out the window, he looked at me.
“Gettin’ dark. Trut’s got no lights.”
He pulled out his cell phone and held it up to the windshield; stretched his arm out his window and waggled his hand around. Frowning, he returned the mobile to his pocket. I didn’t need to ask if there was any signal. We drove on, the rim shrieking each time the 4×4 clambered up and over rocks. Finally, at the ridgeline of a small hill, I pointed eagerly: our tent!
Yvonne had set up camp in a sheltered hollow and was settling in as twilight claimed the Mojave. Her peaceful evening was shattered by what the uncharitable might call panicked bellowing.
“Hurry! Pack up the camp!” I shouted. “We have to get out of here before dark!”
I struggled to push the broken Husqvarna up a slight rise while Yvonne collapsed tent poles and Ferill backed his truck towards me. Together, we rolled the bike into the bed of the Chevy; he pointed to a snarled knot of desiccated old ropes, and I secured the Husky the best I could manage. As I hopped down from the truck, I cringed at the state of the front wheel. The rim was ravaged, noticeably shrunken in diameter. Oh, and the rear tyre was flat.
We threw the camping gear into the truck, Yvonne slid in beside Ferill, and, clutching my bike as we lurched forward, I crouched in the back. Right beside the glass shower doors…
Ferill was racing the darkness – at about 15 kilometres per hour – while the Husqvarna hopped up and down like a massive frog lashed to the truck with scraps of tattered rope. A beer bottle soared out the driver’s window and I felt improbably comforted.
We eventually wobbled into Ferill’s yard just ahead of full darkness. The truck’s front wheel was no more than an undersized disc of tattered metal; his supply of Miller depleted. Our next step was clearly a return visit to the Idle Spurs.
Piling into Ferill’s car, along with his wife, Marsha, we retreated to the local oasis and set up a round of drinks on the bar. We talked and toasted our rescuer and laughed, and Marsha taught us how to use the video blackjack terminals. And Ferill didn’t finish his Red Eye – that’s beer with tomato juice, just so you know.
“Ferill,” I said, “Do you mind if I ask why you don’t finish your drinks?”
He fixed me with a measured glare. “Yeah, I’ll tell ya. I got a lot o’ friends who’re a lot thirstier than me,” he growled, “An most of ‘em are dead!” It’s true: Ferill was likely the most honest guy in town. And certainly one of the most decent, too.
We camped outside their mobile home – choosing dirt, instead of the carpeted section of the dusty yard – and returned again to the Idle Spurs for breakfast together. Over cellophane-packaged Danish, and at our repeated urging, Ferill finally ceded that we might give him some money for repairs to his truck. “But,” he insisted, “$20’s ‘nuff.”
We stuffed all the cash we had into an envelope and felt it wasn’t enough, but without a doubt it was more than Ferill would have agreed to. We hugged our rescuer, and handed him the sealed envelope.
And that was the best motorcycle breakdown we’ve ever had.
This article was first published in Issue 18 of Overland Magazine.