As the ride turned left towards Death Valley, the sun was just beginning to impose its will on a cloudless sky. For now its light fell softly on the plain and painted the hills in purples and ambers. The ribbon of asphalt stretched out to the East, and the peleton rode as one towards the distant crucible at Furnace Creek.
From a ridge above the road we photographed them climbing towards us, and that picture said as much about the ride as any we took over the six days. They'd made it this far by sticking together, our small band set against the enormous landscape of the West.
They continued on the plateau until the earth fell away like a spiraling buzzard, two thousand feet down to the smoothies and trinkets of the lost outpost at Panamint Springs. I picked up a souvenir sherrif's badge; I think Kathryn bought a couple of fridge magnets while we gassed the car and gave them a head start. It was hot now. We could see the last of the riders crossing the shimmering plain to where the Nadeau Trail climbed steeply back into the hills. "They're not climbing that are they?"
We caught them in ones and twos on that unrelenting ten-mile slog to the top. Higher up a headwind slapped them with a giant hot hand. We hung with Erick who gave us the soundbite of the day. "I just puked in my mouth, and I'm not kidding" Too much water, too fast but he was riding strong. Ahead we could see Carmen's tiny frame struggling against a wall of hot air. Erick closed the gap, and together they soldiered on to the top.
The other side of the mountain shot straight down to sea level and beyond that the valley floor. I think everyone enjoyed the descent in spite of the rising heat (118F on one of the bikes). We passed the ranger station apprehensively but it was closed for lunch. Half a mile to our left a majestic field of sand dunes sailed off to the horizon. We forged ahead and climbed a 200' mound to shoot the riders on an unobstructed mile of deserted highway. The hill was encrusted with shards of broken black rock that intensified the heat. Ten minutes up there and I could have cooked on my tripod.
Ultimately the shot was spoiled by a wandering band of French motorcyclists riding rented Harleys. C'est tout.
As the destination grew closer the last miles through this bleached wilderness seemed to pass in slow motion. You really can "buy it out here" I thought to myself. Kathryn got on her bike and rode the last couple of miles to the Furnace Creek Ranch. When I saw her 45 minutes later her face was flushed and the afternoon heat was taking a toll. We poured water over her head to cool her down while we waited for keys to our rooms. I lay in the singular shadow of a large palm tree and like a sundial moved every ten minutes to keep up with its progress. When we went to bed at 7 or 8 it was still in the 90s. They don't call it Furnace Creek for nothing.The riders now had one last hurdle to cross, and it would be a big one.