Keep delaying that mid-life adventure? Find out what happened when eight men who really should know better dirt-biked through the Western badlands. By Ben Shuckburgh
There are plenty of reasons not to take that trip you’ve been dreaming of: money, work, family, creaking bodies and old injuries to name a few. But you know how it goes…
A bunch of middle-aged chaps are out for a few drinks, remembering the glories of youth – and before you know it, eight of us have committed to dirt-biking through California’s Mojave Desert, following the route of the Barstow/Vegas race.
A few of us had been talking about something like this for a while. There was some idea of doing it in a couple of years’ time to celebrate my brother-in-law Nick Ashley’s 60th birthday, and my 50th. But time passed, all those excuses came into play, and nothing happened.
Then a chat to some car-racing mates kickstarted us. They were totally up for the adventure, but they wanted to do it now.
There was only one man to go to: Chris Haines, the dirt-bike legend who’s won 13 Baja 1000 titles and been running and guiding trips for 25 years. There’s nothing he doesn’t know about US desert riding and racing. So he put together a four-day trip for us, but taking our time and with a few detours along the way.
The starting point is Lake Elsinore, where we meet up with Chris’s team and find 12 fresh, identical Honda CRF450’s loaded up and waiting. (It’s best to have a few spare.) This feels like Christmas. We’re in real Steve McQueen country – On Any Sunday was filmed nearby – and it’s been a dirt-bike Mecca for years.
We hightail it up to Randsburg, a one-horse hamlet in the hills at the desert’s edge. It describes itself as a ‘living ghost town’. It’s like Tombstone (with bikes tied to the hitching post instead of horses). And here is Goat Brekker – yes, really! – ready to welcome us with cold beers.
Goat was a huge MX star in the early Eighties, before opening Goat’s Sky Ranch, one of the coolest places I’ve ever been to, run by one of the coolest men I’ve ever met. The ranch is a cross between the Hole in the Wall gang’s hideout and the best B&B in the world, and is truly soulful.
Coming from our little island, the scale of the country we ride into the next morning is mind-blowing. Up at dawn, we head for the empty horizon under an enormous sky. There are numberless tracks and trails winding through the desert and over the hills, and soon we’re cruising in a long snake-line, tucked behind our guides Ryan and Bryan, blasting through tumbleweed and cactus.
That evening, sinking a few beers round a huge wood-burning stove and tucking into some delicious chow, we know we have a great time ahead. But there’s another day of touring before the Big Trip starts, and after saddling up next morning, we ride out full of anticipation.
As we head into the eastern foothills, the terrain becomes more challenging, then a lot of fun: rocky, twisting climbs, winding up the mountains; fast tracks of gravel that you drift through on the corners.
Then the summit, and the most amazing view: a vast panorama stretching in every direction, with not a sign of civilisation. We look east and realise there’s three days’ riding across those hills and plains until we get to Vegas.
Heading back to Goat’s and with confidence rising, we start tanking on a bit and (you can guess what’s coming) Nick’s lofting the front wheel over a gully and cases it on a rock. The bike stops but he doesn’t, and he face-plants the desert, smashing his visor.
He jumps up, hoping no one has seen. But sadly for him, I’m right behind, pointing and laughing.
Wild West country
This landscape had an eerily familiar feel, as if we’ve stepped into a John Ford movie. It’s pure Wild West. We stop at an abandoned goldmine shaft that some prospector spent 40 years digging out on his own. We peer into an old talc mine that’s just a blinding white hole in the rock.
We rest at the famous Husky Graveyard, where riders have buried bikes and gear in the ground, as memorials to the departed, and drag-raced across a dry salt lake, huge and glassy, shimmering with heat.
Occasionally, there’s a reminder of the harshness of the environment: iron-hard cactus spines can go straight through our desert tyres.
Still, fixing a few punctures gives us a chance to catch our breath. And now it’s time to get (a little) more serious, as we take the race route. The going becomes more and more sandy; the dunes start rising around us and we have to slalom through them.
Sometimes, we break for play: hill-climbing to the top of a dune and blasting back down; riding a kind of half-pipe between two huge, long dunes; jumping, crashing – it’s serious fun. That night we get into Baker and there are Goat and the boys, with the bar set up outside our motel. The drinks on ice, the tacos hot and fresh. A very welcome sight.
On the last day, we are eight very happy men. There’s been no room for work stress. No hassles about appointments or deadline. No worries about kids or family. For each, just a bike, a few good mates and limitless trails to play on.
So forget all those reasons for not doing it or something similar. It’s better than any therapy. You only live once – and you’re dead a long time – so what are you waiting for?
And regarding our final night, you know what they say: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas…
A longer version of this article first appeared in TBM magazine