Runnin' on Empty on the Road to Death Valley

Left or right???

By: Michael LeValley
August 9, 2016

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Panamint Valley might just be the last place you want to run out of gas. There ain’t nothin’ around for miles. No people, no cell service, no roadside assistance, no water…and no gas!

I was riding my ’84 BMW motorcycle, and I had just passed through a rundown mining town called Trona on my way to Death Valley. I checked my gas gauge as I passed through town, and I had over half a tank and about 100 miles to go to Stovepipe Wells, where I’d be camping for the night.

“No worries” I thought, “I can make that, easily.”

Photo: Cameron Gardner

I went up and over the mountains and worked my way down the winding mining roads that lead from Trona into Panamint Valley below. I looked out at nothing but wide open desert — my favorite kinda scenery.

I was cruising through the valley when I noticed my gas gauge falling towards empty way sooner than it should have. “Uhhh, that’s not good” I said to myself.

It was then that I noticed that I had been fighting a headwind for the last 10 minutes or so, and it was now up to about 50 m.p.h.

Before I knew it, I was switching over to my “reserve” tank, which meant I had about 20 miles to go before I ran out of gas…

If you look at the picture of my bike, you can actually see the dust being kicked up by those 50 m.p.h. winds. You can also see the mountains that are about 75 miles away. So, when I realized that I had about 20 miles to go before I ran out of gas, I could also see that there was nothing around. I mean NOTHING.

“Ok, well guess I’ll be spending the night in the desert,” I said to myself (You do a lot of talking to yourself when you’re alone in the desert, cause there ain’t no one else to talk to).

So, then I reached a crossroad, and my gas gauge was in the red. To the right was my destination – Death Valley – about another 50 miles away. Too far. I’d be out of gas long before I reached Stovepipe Wells.

“I wonder how long before someone comes by. Maybe sometime tomorrow…”

Photo: Sarah Eichstedt

Then I looked to the left, and off in the distance, about as far off as I could see, there appeared to be a couple of palm trees??? They stood taller than anything out here in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t be sure they were real.

Hmmm… I could go to the right and follow the safe route, even though I knew I’d run out of gas. I mean eventually someone would come along and give me a ride to a gas station…

Or, I could take a chance, push the envelope and explore uncharted territory. It might be the wrong direction, but at least I might be able to get there before I hit empty. I had no idea what was going to be “there” or if I would even make it “there”.

“There” turned out to be a true oasis in the desert- a tiny little store and a single gas pump! In the middle of nowhere. I mean literally, there was NOTHING else around for miles. Was I imagining this? Was it a mirage?

I swear I bent down and kissed the ground. Then I went inside, gave the guy 20 bucks and filled up my tank. I was so grateful that I didn’t have to spend the night in the middle of Panamint Valley – the middle of nowhere.

After filling up, I headed back the way I came, up and over those mountains until I got to Stovepipe. It was an incredible sunset ride. The sky turned every shade of red, orange and violet imaginable. The wind was warm and invigorating. My canned soup dinner at the campsite was out of this world. I slept better than if I had been in a 5 star hotel.

Damn, life is great! Forget surviving…I’m gonna THRIVE!!!

Cover photo: Sal Cavazos

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.