The Impossible Route: Day 4-7
By: Jake Orness
Day 4 was going to be the longest stage of this Impossible Route odyssey. Jeremiah Bishop and Tyler Pearce “The Vegan Cyclist” had endured wind, sand, rocks to get this far. Today, if everything worked out, they would end up in Furnace Creek, an oasis in the middle of Death Valley. They said adios to Primm Valley Resort and Casino thankful for a full night’s rest in a real bed.
You could look at the course profile for today’s “Queen stage” and scoff that it had more descending than climbing, but that would be a mistake. 8 miles in, both Jeremy and Tyler were pushing their bikes. What started as a paved false flat through the Ivanpah Solar Electric Farm turned into a steep and rough climb up to Colosseum Mine.
We zoomed ahead to the Mine and set up for a photo op of our conquering heroes peering into the abyss of the former gold mine. It never happened. They missed a turn and left us hanging. As soon as we realized this, we went off in pursuit of them over the roughest roads in America.
Amazingly, Jeremiah suffered the first tire issue of the trip as we rolled into Tecopa, the halfway mark of today’s stage. Tecopa was also our planned water stop. What we didn’t plan on was that the electricity is only turned on at certain hours of the day out here in the desert. So it could be a two hour wait for water. Once again, the kindness of strangers intervened. Some friendly locals drove off in a whirl of dust and came back 10 minutes later with a bag full of fresh bottled water.
Next stop: the Ibex Dunes. The road out of Tecopa was a cyclist’s dream: quiet with a good surface and postcard views in every direction. But we know that the desert is still a hostile environment. Harsh sun, rough terrain, steep climbs, and a dangerous lack of water can create challenges quickly. At times, it feels like riding on the surface of the moon. Very barren and remote.
As the ride got longer and the sand got deeper, things got weirder. Jeremiah was convinced that wearing his mask may help keep him stay hydrated for longer (it doesn’t), and Tyler started testing some new head capes (not for sale). Clearly, the moon was taking its toll on our Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. We were well into the afternoon now and needed to get moving if there was any chance at making it before getting ‘darked on’ again.
The Impossible Route had sunk to new depths today. We went from 5500’ elevation at Colesseum Mine to 190 feet below sea level at Furnace Creek. Despite the 6690’ loss of elevation, the riders had climbed 6700’ along the way! They had also milked every minute of daylight out of the sky rolling into Furnace Creek well after sunset. We got ‘darked on’.
With day 4 behind them Jeremiah and Tyler were now in the heart of the Impossible Route. Today’s stage seemed short on paper compared to the day before, and the climb from Furnace Creek to Rhyolite was paved, giving all of us a false sense of confidence that we had plenty of daylight to make it to camp at TeaKettle Junction.
Rhyolite is a ghost town filled with art installations that are ideal for Instagram moments, so we spent some time before getting back on the road. Titus Canyon was the next dirt section on the route. We had heard stories of what to expect, but none of us were prepared for what an amazing section of road this is. The early portions felt like standard desert. Then we reached our first scenic lookout. Stunning. And the next lookout was even more stunning and gave us a clear view of the steep climb ahead. At the top of this climb, you could see multiple ranges and the long epic snaking descent to exit the canyon. It was then just a quick trip through the “Narrows” and then a straight shot to the road to Ubehebe Crater before we would eventually reach TeaKettle Junction.
It was pretty late in the day at this point. The boys had to pick up the pace if we were going to make it. We also had the small issue of not knowing exactly where camp would be. TeaKettle Junction is miles down a dirt road with warning signs about no tow service and deep sand. We had left Biju in the morning under the impression that he would drive the motor home as far as possible and then pull over and set-up camp the first area he could legally do so. We just needed to find him.
This was a bit nerve racking. At this point, we had a slow leak in the truck tire, we couldn’t reach Biju or Travis, cell coverage was zilch, the boys were out of water, we were running out of daylight, and we still had 27 miles of unknown dirt between us and TeaKettle Junction. Every corner we came around, we hoped to see the motor home. Eventually, we saw the welcoming lights of Tea Kettle Junction and our finish line. I think Jeremiah finished in first place. It was too dark to tell.
TeaKettle Junction is named after a man named Tea Ket.... Just kidding. No one knows the origin of the name, but hundreds of tea kettles containing written messages have been left behind by travelers for years. It’s a thing.
Overnight the desert winds picked up and were rocking the van pretty crazy. Just imagine what it was doing to the tent. Using a cyclist’s instincts of drafting, Travis wisely positioned the van to block the wind for the tent and saved us the trouble of chasing it across the valley.
As the sun rose, the wind died down, and we were treated to a great desert sunrise. Sadly, that sunrise also revealed a now completely flat truck tire. That caused only a slight delay.
The day’s route was an easy 70 miles to Lone Pine. A cake walk after the previous stages. I wasn’t really even worried about them. I was more concerned about the rest of the team. The motor home had a long slow trip back the way it came. It is not the most agile desert assault vehicle in the world. There’s a reason why the US Army doesn’t use motor homes in Afghanistan. Luckily, our soigneur, Biju Thomas, becomes Brad Keselowski in an RV. He did an amazing job with it.
For us in the truck and our riders, we aimed straight for Lippincott Pass, then up Saline Valley, Lee Flat, and finally Cerro Gordo before dropping into Lone Pine. We would be on dirt the whole day with no spare, no cell, and no tow. All of our research said to be prepared, have a spare, use 4x4 only, high clearance required. We did have the 4x4. The other stuff? Not so much. Rock on!
Our first stop was “The Race Track.” This famous spot is known for the mystery of large rocks moving along the dry lake bed leaving a trail behind. The mystery was solved long ago, but it’s worth a stop. It wasn’t long before we hit Lippincott Pass. We relied on a scouting report from a passing motocross rider to navigate the rough terrain. Local knowledge is always better than what’s printed on a map.
One of the biggest challenges of this ride was leap-frogging ahead of the riders in order to document their ride. Bicycles can traverse much of the terrain faster than a 4x4 truck, so we often found ourselves in chase mode.
Continuing west, we entered Lee Valley. This road was beautiful, the views were stunning, and the riding was easy for the guys. It was so chill through the valley that they stopped and had lunch in the middle of the road.
A short descent followed by a long tough climb out of the valley on a rough, narrow, loose riverbed was the last challenge before Jeremiah, Tyler, and our gang arrived in a place called Cerro Gordo near Keeler, CA. It was worth your time to go down the YouTube rabbit hole of videos documenting what can be found in Cerro Gordo. It was a silver mine long ago. Now it’s just a cool place that few people know about. The characters at the site are friendly, welcoming people and the vibe is something special. Even more special was the epic descent down the mountain into Lone Pine. Watching the guys shred the tilt down had us all making plans to go back with our own bikes. This might have been our favorite day of the Impossible Route. It’s a tough call.
We woke up to another stunning morning and after discussing war stories from the earlier days of the trip - which is honestly the best part of an epic ride - we eventually transferred (that’s bike lingo for “drove in motor vehicles”) into town at the bottom of Whitney Portal to start the day’s ride. We were all pretty excited about this route. It’s pure postcards and vistas everywhere up where we’re headed.
Our first stop was the Alabama Hills. You’ll recognize it immediately as the backdrop for a lot of popular movies. It’s also a popular spot for visiting. I’d been though this place on weekdays only in odd times and had always been lucky with it being quiet and empty. Given our schedule on the route today, we were there at peak time. Ugh. By the time the boys came through for our first shot, it was an absolute zoo! We moved on. Things cleared out a little further down the road.
Next, we reached Manzanar. This was the site of a one of 10 concentration camps where the U.S. held Japanese Americans during World War II. Given the environment we current live in, it was a jarring reminder at the horrible things we’re capable of. From here we crossed US-395 and made our way north along the Moiver Canal.
After lunch, we were all smiles. The euphoria of having made it this far had taken over, and the boys chatted, laughed, and goofed off as we headed north to Bishop. I think this must be how the racers feel on the final stage of the Tour de France. Fun and carefree with all the hard work behind us! As we got closer and closer, the antics grew and both Jeremiah and Tyler could not stop smiling. We pulled into Erick Schat’s Bakery and called it finished.
To wrap up this 7 day adventure in one sentence is impossible. To put it simply, our entire team would agree that an epic ride like this is worth every bit of your time and effort. It pushed us all to work as a team. We’ll share it for the rest of our lives no matter where we end up. And it’s cool to know that there are always people along the way who are willing to help you stay on course.
Whatever your epic ride plans may be, push yourself a little farther. And enjoy the ride!