The Game Plan (Or Lack Thereof)
January 31, 2012
Filed under Rider Magazine Blog
Since first hearing about it I’ve wanted to visit the Husky Memorial, a “sacred site for desert riders” in the Mojave Desert. There’s a page on the AMA District 37 website with a description of the Husky Memorial, a list of riders honored there, plus photos and a map. The description says:
In 1987, Jim Erickson passed on to his next adventure. Family and friends, knowing how much he loved to ride the Cuddeback area, buried his 390 Husky, and scattered his ashes to the four winds and blue skies of the desert. Since then, many other riders have been memorialized here. This is a very special place.
The January/February 2012 AMA District 37 newsletter included a ride report titled “Lost Coyotes MC’s Dash to the Memorials.” Off-road riders visited the Husky Memorial as well as memorials to test pilots whose planes crashed in the area. This inspired my buddy Paul, a history and airplane buff and an avid adventure rider, to organize a similar ride, which we called the Plane Wreck Trek. We were joined by two moreriding buddies, Peter and Blake.
Paul lives only two blocks from me, so we met at 6:30am on Saturday and made our way to Fillmore on CA 126, where we met Peter. The three of us rode to the Sand Canyon Road exit on CA 14 to gas up and meet Blake, then continue on to the Mojave Desert. The route Paul put together skirted the southern and eastern edges of Edwards AFB, and beyond the barbed wire fence we could see several planes that had crashed, including a B-52 bomber. In the small town of Boron we stopped at the Colonel Vernon P. Saxon Jr. Aerospace Museum for photos and an unplanned tour with the exceedingly friendly and knowledgeable docent.
After gassing up in Kramer Junction, at the intersection of CA 58 and US 395, we aired down our tires and left the tarmac, riding in the vast open desert between Fort Irwin, Hinkley and Randsburg. We stopped at the memorial for Air Force Major Carl Cross, who died in June 1966 when the XB-70 he was piloting collided with the F-104 piloted by NASA Test Pilot Joseph Walker, whose memorial we also visited. (For more about the incident, visit http://area51specialprojects.com/xb70_crash.html.) It was a stunningly beautiful January day, with temperatures in the upper 60s and clear blue skies. We enjoyed the challenging and varying terrain, as well as the peculiar sights in the Mojave, such as abandoned mines, junked cars and ancient petroglyphs.
Another feature of the Mojave Desert is that it’s criss-crossed with a dizzying array of trails, pathways and two-track roads. Following a GPS track, occasionally we overshot a turn, stopped to turn around and then backtracked a bit to get back on the correct route. Following just such an about-face, I followed Paul up a particularly tricky sand wash that snaked its way up a small canyon. It was one of those “gas on, eyes up, don’t stop” situations. When I dumped the BMW G 650 GS Sertão in the soft sand, I didn’t see Paul ahead of me, nor Peter and Blake behind me. I pressed on until I came out of the canyon, where I stopped to rest and drink some water. Up the hill to my left, Paul had parked his BMW R 1200 GS after turning left out of the wash.
“The Husky Memorial is just over this rise,” he called out to me.
“Where are Peter and Blake?” Paul asked.
“Behind me, I thought. But I haven’t seen or heard them.”
After a few minutes, Paul braved the tricky sand wash again and backtracked to find our friends. Before leaving he told me, “Stay here!”
Fine by me. More time to catch my breath and soak up the scenery. I spooked a jack rabbit as I hiked up the hill a bit to get a wider view. A good fifteen minutes passed without hearing the distinctive sound of BMW boxers or Blake’s KTM Super Enduro blasting their way up the sand wash. Concerned that one of them had gotten hurt or broken down, I decided to backtrack down the sand wash to save Paul from having to ride it yet again to retrieve me. Another factor in my decision is that it was after 4:00pm, and the sun was dropping fast.
When I got back to the main track where the four of us had turned around, no one was there. No sign of Peter, Blake or Paul, just knobbie tracks. No sound or dust suggested which way they had gone. I didn’t have a GPS with me, so I didn’t know which way to go, and we were well out of cell range and had no walkie-talkies so we had no way to communicate with each other. After a few minutes, I headed down the main track in the direction we were headed when we turned around. But after a few minutes I turned around and headed back to the spot where Paul and I had turned at the wash. Another few minutes went by—it was about 4:30pm by then—and I rode down the track again, but turned around a second time, telling myself that heading down an unknown track with less than an hour of daylight left seemed foolish.
I parked my bike and grew concerned. The possibility of being stuck out in the desert overnight began to sink in. I wasn’t where I told Paul I would be, but I had returned to the last place all four of us were together. I figured Paul would have to ride up the wash again to find me, so I couldn’t miss him if I waited at the mouth of the small canyon.
Soon enough, I heard the roar of Paul’s GS and saw his halogen headlight bouncing over the whoops of the main track. I immediately felt relieved, but it was short-lived when Paul told me he had no idea where Peter and Blake had gone. He had been able to get to an open area with limited cell reception, where he received a text message from Blake saying they were headed for Kramer Junction. We still didn’t know why, but at least they were headed in the right direction.
With so little daylight left, Paul and I opted to skip the Husky Memorial and head for civilization. We blasted our way down a wide, sandy wash through a canyon and out onto an open plain. After a solid half-hour of intense sand riding, we stopped to catch our breath, hydrate and call our girlfriends since we finally had cell reception. The sun had set to the west, with brightly colored orange and purple clouds clinging to the horizon. It was beautiful in the wide-open desert. But we were still a good 30 minutes from pavement and, as it turned out, about four and a half hours from home.
There’s a saying that “it isn’t an adventure until something goes wrong.” Perhaps, but the mistakes we made on this ride were foolish, unbecoming of the effort and care we put into preparing for dual-sport rides. On the long, dark ride home, I dissected the day’s events.
Mistake #1: Not Sticking to a Schedule. We ride on the weekends to have fun, to get away from the strict schedules of our jobs and daily lives, to escape into the wild. But just as climbers on Everest stick to precise schedules, often turning back mere feet from the summit when they’ve been in the Death Zone for too long, we needed to have an agreed-upon time to abort the ride and return to civilization. As interesting as it was, our unplanned visit to the aerospace museum burned an hour of daylight during a shortened winter day, and we expended more time than necessary at several stops along the route. Being a scouting ride, we didn’t know how long it would take to complete the route, so we should have established time checkpoints and re-evaluated our progress when it got late in the day.
Mistake #2: Making Assumptions. Having ridden together for several years, though often with other riders and different ride leaders, the four of us assumed that we knew how to handle whatever might come up. But when Paul and I got separated from Peter and Blake, we didn’t have an explicit plan in mind. When I was a kid, my parents taught my brother and me that, if we were to get separated while at the mall, county fair or wherever, return to the last place we saw each other and wait. Don’t go looking for one another because then two of us would be wandering around aimlessly and very unlikely to happen upon one another. We should have discussed such a strategy in advance.
Mistake #3: Not Staying Put. When Paul told me to stay where I was while he went to look for Peter and Blake, I should have done just that. Even if I thought I was being helpful by returning to the last place the four of us were together, I ended up making more work for Paul and burning precious daylight. There was a single-track trail that allowed him to get back to where I should have been without riding up the sand wash again, so we missed each other because I was looking for him while he took a different route to retrieve me.
Mistake #4: Splitting Up the Team. When we ride off-road, we always travel in groups of at least two riders, usually more. When a fair amount of time had passed since we last saw Peter and Blake, Paul and I should have stuck together and gone to look for them together, especially since it was late in the day. That way neither of us would be left alone, nor would we be riding solo in search of others, leaving a single rider susceptible to an injury or mechanical issue.
Mistake #5: Not Being Fully Prepared. We usually go on day rides, so it’s easy to get complacent and not bring enough supplies for an unexpected night out in the desert or the woods. My Giant Loop Great Basin Saddlebag was well-stocked with a spare inner tube, tire repair kit and pump, tools, first-aid kit, water, snacks and another layer of clothing. But my real problem was that I own a GPS and didn’t bring it, relying on Paul’s navigation (nor did I have a map and compass). And I own a SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker, which I also didn’t bring with me. If you’ve got such gear, bring it; if you don’t have it, get it. Even on group rides, each person should be self-sufficient because unexpected situations can arise where you end up all alone, needing to make camp, find a way out of a remote area or contact medical or other emergency personnel.
We all made it home safe and sound, later than we had hoped but with our bodies and bikes intact. Clearly we made some mistakes, and those mistakes could have been quite costly. We learned some lessons, and we’ll have a smarter game plan in place before our next ride. Like the voiceover says at the end of G.I. Joe cartoons, “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.”