Thursday, December 2, 2010

One Dog Night

We've all heard of the band Three Dog Night.  Well, anyone from my generation probably has.  "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)" and "Out in the Country" from their 1970 LP It Ain't Easy are timeless classics.  The band name "Three Dog Night" was explained in the liner notes inside the CD set Celebrate: The Three Dog Night Story, 1965-1975.  It states that vocalist Danny Hutton's girlfriend suggested the name after reading a magazine article about indigenous Australians, in which it was explained that on cold nights they would customarily sleep in a hole in the ground whilst embracing a dingo, a native species of wild dog. On colder nights they would sleep with two dogs and if a night was especially cold, it was a "three dog night".

At this point, you're probably wondering what the hell this has to do with planning and executing a trip to Alaska.  Well, for starters it's cold up there despite all the hysteria created by the global warming crisis Although I do plan to camp where possible on my trip, I don't plan on sleeping with any dogs. Of course I never planned such a thing the night before I crossed Death Valley last summer, but that's exactly what happened.

I think I'm a reasonably bright guy.  I scored a 131 on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) last year.  Despite that, I can't fix a sink or nail two pieces of wood together, I'm planning a, 10,000 mile motorcycle trip from Texas to the top of the world, and I decided to cross Death Valley from California to Nevada on August 1st.  I suppose that's proof that intelligence quotient and common sense aren't always aligned.
While planning my itinerary, I figured I could outsmart Mother Nature and zip across the desert really early in the morning before the temperatures hit their 130 degree forecast.  So I studied potential routes, reviewed weather history, and researched the cheap hotels closest to the Death Valley border.  Through these studies, I learned that there is really only one good, scenic route, that it's hot as hell on the desert in August, and that there are no cheap hotels in the area.

I reserved a reasonably priced hotel room in the thriving metropolis of Lone Pine on the California side of the desert.  I planned a scenic ride from San Francisco to the Yosemite National Forest, over Tioga Pass, and down highway 395 before stopping for the night in Lone Pine.  That route was breathtaking and somewhat exhausting.  The weather was perfect, but the cager traffic consisting largely of rental campers and trailers with clueless and  the inconsiderate drivers made for more than a few tense moments.

Lone Pine proved to have all the splendor and excitement that I imagined it would. One thing it did not have was my hotel reservation.  I found the streets to be considerably crowded for a town so small that it probably only had one horse to match the one pine.  It turned out that most if not all these people were out-of-towners like myself, meaning every hotel room in town was booked.  At one of my unsuccessful attempts to secure a room for the night, I learned that there is a great deal of protected land in the nearby desert, the access to which is restricted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  Apparently, the BLM has a lottery and its winners are granted access to these restricted areas. This weekend was apparently one of those events.  As usual, my timing was impeccable. The street (singular by design) was teaming with earthy nature lovers sporting fringe jackets, backpacks, knit hats, and reusable aluminum water bottles. It was an REI crowd for sure.

After trying unsuccessfully at a few more hotels, I figured I had better look for someplace covered and reasonably secure to bed down overnight.  I planned to keep looking, but the former Boy Scout in me instinctively knew it was best to be prepared.  I found an abandoned gas station at the south end of town with an accessible side door wide enough for Hester to ride through. With no luck securing a room in town, I went back to one hotel where the desk clerk told me to check back at 10pm and if he had a no-show, I could have the room.  Suddenly, the requirement for cheap accommodations was no longer a priority.  Out of luck and out in the cold, I headed south of town to my posh digs at the abandoned gas station.

I have to admit that when it comes to travel, I've been spoiled. Traveling for my work at IBM means I'm on the road somewhere nearly every week, but it also affords me decent hotels.  As such, I hold uranium-level or moon rock status on most hotel frequent guest plans.  But when I checked into Hotel Hester, there was no priority check-in line, no mini bar, no complimentary popcorn and sodas in the kitchenette; no kitchenette for that matter. There were none of the little shampoo bottles or mini soaps in the bathroom.  In fact there was no bathroom.  It did have a floor with adequate gravity for me to lie on it for the night though, so I figured I'd make the best of it.  I laid the small bean bag pillow and an airline blanket that I had packed on top of my bike cover and anything else I could find for cushion between me and the concrete floor.  I then gingerly pulled Hester through the side door next to my "bed" and worked her back and forth repeatedly, eventually making a u-turn and parking her straight up on the center stand facing the front wheel towards the door through which I had just passed.

I laid down, stretched out, and actually felt very relaxed despite the circumstances.  Doffing my riding boots after a sixteen hour day in them provided - at that moment - relief equal to any adjustable bed in any hotel on which I've slept in years.  Looking upward from where I stretched out, I had an excellent view of a star-filled sky provided by a window-less hole in the wall directly above my right side. I cued up the "go to sleep" play list on my iPod, but then thought better of it, figuring it wiser to be able to hear whatever might be going on around me in my impromptu accommodations. Megadeth's "Rust in Sleep" would have to wait.

My ADHD brain has a habit of keeping me awake when I go to bed.  When voluntary thought on my part ceases, random involuntary thoughts start parading across my consciousness competing for brain cycles and keeping me awake. I knew that despite my fatigue, this night would be no different and I'd probably lie awake for ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

I awakened to the same view through the window above me looking at an amazing sight of the eastern sky which was awash with a feathery painted mixture of deep black space and fire red clouds.  It was pre-dawn in the desert. There was no wake-up call, no alarm clock, not even a crowing rooster. With the exception of a light snoring sound, Hotel Hester was bathed in pre-dawn silence.  It occurred to me as I lay there that at if I was awake, someone or something else must be snoring. I sat up slowly, partly out of caution, but mostly from old age.  Across the floor from me right next to the side door was what appeared to be a large dog that had wandered in and was now sound asleep. I sure hoped it was a dog.  The cobwebs that had occupied my brain only seconds before were now replaced by random thoughts of the possibility of roving desert wolf packs.

Rational thought took over and I remembered just how much I love dogs and how much they always liked me.  I stood upright keeping a cautious eye on my guest as I donned my boots.  The sound of the first zipper was all it took to rouse the animal from its sleep. I was startled and somewhat envious of how fast he sprang up compared to how long it took me. I was equally startled at how little he appeared to like me compared to most other dogs.  In fact, based on the drawn back ears, the tucked tail, the display of teeth, and the increasingly loud snarling, I felt about as welcome in that station as as a pork chop at the Wailing Wall.  Keeping a close eye on Cujo, I slowly and deliberately gathered and packed my gear (re: wadded it up into a ball shoved it into my saddle roll).  The dog seemed content to keep its distance while keeping both eyes on his target, which was fine by me.

This stare-down standoff went on a minute or two when I remembered  seeing Caesar Milan say that dogs interpret staring as a sign of aggression. I also remembered how Caesar would make a sharp "psst" sound while snapping his fingers and pointing at the target dog. On TV, the dog always looked away and submitted.  Apparently, this dog had never seen The Dog Whisperer because when I psst'd, snapped, and pointed, it just seemed to embolden him.  His stance grew wider and his growl was now mixed with loud barking.

I decided to start Hester, figuring the exhaust note in the enclosed concrete room would surely frighten the dog.  I slowly reached over while taking one step towards the bike, turned the ignition switch and hit the start button.  Hester roared to life with an especially concussive bang from a top dead center start as I twisted the throttle in short bursts (because that's what we do with Harleys).  I'm always impressed with and amused by that sound.  The dog, however was neither impressed nor amused. He just stood there looking first at Hester and then at me with an expression that seemed to say "really? - is that the best you got?" and adding "I like the deep, throaty sound.  Now hold still while I chew off your leg."

The sun and the temperature were both rising and frankly, I was out of ideas.  Mr. 131 IQ was being outwitted by a homeless dog.  Adding insult to injury, the dog fixed the sink and repaired the wood on the window sill while I tried to figure out what to do next.

The last thing I wanted to do was injure the dog, but I had a desert to cross and he was literally standing in my way.  I decided to mount up and ride towards the door directly at him.  If he moved, fine.  If not, so be it.  I was on my way regardless.  I threw my left leg over the seat and reached for my helmet which was laying atop the right mirror.  My helmet on this trip was a Shark Evoline modular model.  Modular helmets have a face piece that can me adjusted over the helmet transforming it from a full-face helmet to a 3/4 style.  This style of helmet isn't for everyone, but for long trips like this, it's for me. It will also save me a bundle if I ever decide to dress as the black Power Ranger for Halloween.

I slid the helmet on, cinched the chin strap, and grabbed a handful of throttle.  The dog just stood there; no more impressed than before. Before dropping Hester into gear, I figured I should close the face shield.  I reached up and slid the face shield over and latched it closed.  Suddenly, in the first hint of apprehension, the dog ceased barking and his head sideways like dogs do when you whistle off-key at them.  I then reached up and lowered the inner visor, covering my eyes completely.  Maybe it was the transformation in appearance, or maybe the dog just didn't like the Power Rangers.  Whatever the case, articulating the helmet apparently intimidated or frightened the dog because he suddenly turned and ran out of the building.  He stopped and turned to peek back in at me and without hesitation, I dropped Hester into first gear and lunged forward.  As I rolled forward, I kept the motor revved and wedged Hester through the doorway, which seemed much narrower at that point than it did the night before.  Walking backwards as Hester and I rolled towards him, the dog eventually fell backward off a small retaining wall, barking all the while.  Nevertheless, Cujo was finally on the move and so was I.  I managed to snap a souvenir photo with my phone before rolling out of the small parking lot and on to the desert.  Purely by coincidence, as part of a favorites play list, the Three Dog Night tune "One" played on my mp3 player about  an hour into my desert crossing.  I suppose in my case, one wasn't the loneliest number after all.

The ride across Death Valley was breathtaking and the heat never felt very oppressing., especially compared to the tension earlier in the morning  This video link is a time lapse shot of the trip.  Sound on!  Hit play and give it a few seconds to start.