by Bill Brokaw
The Jackass Enduro was created in 1955 by Max Bubeck and Frank Chase, the famous Bubeck and Chase enduro team. It ran in conjunction with a road run with both ending at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley. Their enduro started in Trona, crossing Searles Dry Lake and the Slate Range into Panamint Valley, then over the Panamint Range by way of Goler Wash and on to Furnace Creek Ranch. The two ran this event four years. I will write about my first time to compete in their event. All other memories will be about setting the Jackass as a club member. Riding the Jackass was memorable for me and firmed my enthusiasm for this area of California. I think Max and Frank had other worlds to conquer so handing the event off to a full club was their goal. Max asked me if the Foothill Hawks might want the event as we were not organizing any other enduro at the time. I liked the idea and when presented, the club went for the idea as well. My record keeping back then was lousy and I cannot be sure of the year but the Hawks had it in 1959 and continued through 1970 I have confirmed, maybe longer. My first 35mm slides are from 1960. The memories that will follow are not in any chronological order. Our last event to work was 1964 before moving to Colorado. I did the artwork and layout for the Jackass poster and still have three examples. The come-on printed on the poster is: "Ride the trails of the legendary Ďsingle blanket Jackass prospectorsí". This adventurous event ran through the historic and beautiful vastness of the Panamints and Searles Valley, becoming an unforgettable classic to those who have ridden past events.
First a bit of a primer about what enduros were like in those days. Very much different from those of today. We all had English Smith speedometers with no way to reset them except back to zero. All were rear wheel drive which made it all the more challenging. There was little consistency from one to the other as well. An easily read watch was on your wrist or a large pocket watch mounted impressively on the handlebars some way. Speed averages could be changed along the way but all had to be able to be divided into 60. A rider made a chart to tape to his tank with these possibles listed showing mileages at minute intervals. All figuring was from the start point with an odo check 5 miles out. There were never any mileages at turn points like there are today. So maintaining the averages was much more challenging than today with the equipment used. So normally the averages were more easily maintained than today but harder, much harder, to figure with accuracy. I rode enduros for 14 years before I realized what it would take for me to be on time with accuracy. Today, preset computers do the work for you if you can take your eyes off the trail long enough to look.
My introduction to the event came as a last minute decision. Being a Saturday event, a day we normally had the shop open, it did not quickly have my attention to get a mail entry in. At the last minute the Matchless 350cc trials was loaded into the Ford pickup and Annie and I were off to Trona, way out in the desert. Being a post entry I started in the rear. There would be no gas stop to make the 100 plus miles to Furnace Creek Ranch. I have no memory of where checkpoints were located nor any other details until arriving in Goler Wash. This wash was a canyon climbing into the Panamint Mountains from the floor of Panamint Valley. Suddenly I came upon this mass of motorcycles and a rock face bridging the canyon that resisted the riderís efforts to scale. Then as riders tried and failed they were blocking the way for others. It turned into a giant bottleneck, as such things are called. At the time I was a well developed trials rider and was on my trials bike. This provided what I needed to scale the rocks but I also had to figure out the best line to take and take it when there was not a stalled rider in my way. I forged my way to the front of the mob and made my evaluation. Quicker than I expected the way cleared and I was plonking my way up and over the rocks. The whole process took about 15 minutes as I recall. So I was way behind schedule and faced with miles of an uphill sandwash for the little 7 - 1 compression ratio 350cc to pull. I kept it pinned as much as possible, clearing the pass at the top of Goler and down onto the floor of Death Valley; still behind when I hit the dirt road up the center of the valley. Not long, I got back on schedule and settled down to the 35mph that I believed was the average. I knew all those riders should have been ahead of me on time so I expected them to start going by at 70+ mph, but they didnít. This puzzled me no end since I just knew they would team up and push their bikes over the rocks to get going. I finished 2nd overall and 1st 250cc-350cc, with the winner certainly clearing the rocks before they started to jam up with bikes. My trials bike was just what I needed that day. The rock face in Goler Wash would eventually be blasted out to make the road easily traveled. I always wondered what kind of four-wheel drive vehicles got over those rocks since we were definitely following a road.
The Big Duh...
We didnít have Jart Charts in those days where an expert would look at your numbers and identify stupid mistakes. Fat and dumb, one year we started riders at 8:00, not 8:01. This caused confusion but the riders seemed to adjust after a check point or two. Today it would be a disaster, but then, instrumentation being barely useable, riders were not so up-tight about such things. It sure was an embarrassment though.
We were not very good about figuring out how to identify check locations so those manning the checks would know where to set up the morning of the event. I was setting the mileage and check location as I would do most years. I got the bright idea to take pictures, color slides from the check location. The theory was the checkers would know closely where their check was and the picture could be matched with land features for precise location. That year I was riding ahead of the riders checking markers and check point set-ups. I found out what a dumb idea the slides were as everywhere they were needed it hadnít worked. When questioned, they would hold up the slide and say it looks the same to me. I could not see what they were seeing but there was no question they were trying to be conscientious. Fortunately there was enough time to straighten it all out.
One year the route was set too far south and got into the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. When they set those boundaries they made sure they touched on as many available roads as possible to mess up as much civilian enjoyment as possible. Prejudice opinion. This was learned at the last minute and we were in big trouble. Annie, Dick Vick, and I loaded motorcycles, typewriter, and mimeograph printer in the truck and headed to Trona and a motel. The next day, the Friday before the Saturday Jackass, we had to reroute the course and establish new mileages and checkpoints. Then that night it all had to be typed onto a stencil, then run off on the mimeograph printer, ready for the next morning. Since the days of the Jackass, both the military and the National Park have further encroached on the routes used. The Jackass can never be relived.
As we only took two bikes for Dick and I, Annie was left in Trona rather than sitting in the pickup in the middle of the desert.
The details of the full reroute are no longer clear. This event was before the years we went into the heights of the Panamint Mountains. With the course having to be shortened for the morning routing, our plan was to lengthen the course by running over into Death Valley. So our chosen route was to use Wingate Wash to the floor of Death Valley, then north to the road that feeds back over the lower Panamints into Goler Wash. So we had to run a reroute that connected to Wingate, get back to the truck in Trona, load up and drive around to the foot of Goler Wash. There we unloaded in what was by then midafternoon. This was November with short days. We had already ridden several hours.
At this time Dick was still a green desert rider and, as I was to learn, riding far too tense. He would later become one of the fast guys on the desert. So we gassed our no-headlight bikes and headed south to pick up Wingate. Then up we went up to crest the Panamints near their south and fairly low end. Still a lot of climbing on a jeep road. Going down into Death Valley, the Wingate Pass road was nothing more than a sand wash. Our shadows reached out well ahead of us and we were going away from the truck. About then Dick pulled up. I rolled up alongside as he, being a newer rider, was setting the pace. "Whatís wrong Dick?" "I gotta rest my hands. Theyíre tired." "You canít! We are going to run out of daylight!" "OK." We took off and before we reached the road at the valley floor Dick pulled up again. "Whatís wrong Dick?" "My hands are really hurting!" "Iím sorry but we have to keep moving or we will be in big trouble." We took off again hitting the valley road which gave some relief. But soon it was back up the two-track jeep road to the top of the range. Dick stopped again and the same scenario was repeated. This time the sun was parked on top of the mountains ahead and we were well aware of the many miles left to go. Dick gritted his teeth and took off. This time there was no more stopping. By the time we were getting into the narrowness of Goler Wash canyon the two tracks of the jeep road were but two faintly lighter lines playing out ahead into the darkness. We gingerly let ourselves down over the infamous rock outcrop of Goler and groped our way out of the canyon. The white pickup came into view on that moonless night when we were no more than 50 feet from it. If we had been 15 minutes later I have no idea how we could have dealt with the canyon.
It was back to Trona and the motel where we assembled the information acquired and redeveloped the route and checkpoint information. This, then Annie had to reproduce on a stencil, mimeographed, and ready for distribution as riders and checkpoint workers were checking in around seven in the morning. I donít think we ever figured that a bike problem or crash could have completely destroyed this event, such was our confidence. As I recall the event came off without problems.
A new way over the Slate Range
One year we speculated about moving the start location from the south part of Searles Dry Lake, south of Trona, to a spot north of Trona near the airport. Getting over the Slate Range, while staying well away from where the highway goes over the range, was the unknown. Several from the club were there on that planning day. We rode the wash paralleling the highway for a good ways then worked our way on a maybe logical route to the backbone of the range. From there we peered down the very long way to the Panamint Valley floor. Many unknowns lay in that distance and we knew we were looking down a hill that none of us could get back up. With all the confidence of youth we agreed to go for it. After aways down, deeper straight sided washes carved up the relative soft slopes we were descending. It became obvious that we had to drop into one of these to complete the decent. We dropped down a sharp bank to the floor of a wash and headed down. Soon the sides of the wash grew straight and tall pinching in on us. But so far our handlebars were clearing and we kept going, as though there were a choice. Eventually we rode out onto a large alluvial fan and picked an easy route from there. Wow, what a neat ride. We had found our course without having to backtrack. Next was getting across the valley floor and missing the mud sinks waiting to swallow our bikes. Not at first successful, for another rider and me. A dry-looking dip was actually axle deep mud. I have the picture for proof.
Seldom Seen Slim
Ballarat ghost town in Panamint Valley was our favorite finish location and a place to park for a number of our exploratory rides. Not yet dead, the ghost of Ballarat was Seldom Seen Slim, a famous single blanket jackass prospector, recognized as the last of the breed. Slim lived in a trailer, a small one at that, which sat immovable in the center of what was left of the town. Slimís only water was what people stopping by were good enough to leave him. Therefore he drank it but avoided washing. He was friendly enough, otherwise he would have been out his source of water. Slim would come out to talk as we gathered there. You could say his days of prospecting had dwindled to prospecting for water. Certainly at times water came out of the Panamints but not all year. But we were able to learn how living in the desert and not washing could protect us from the sun. Slim had this strange complexion. A mottling that was very coarse and of a great variety of browns and pinks. Stepping closer, the cause became clear. Dirt would accumulate on his sweaty face until it was so thick that a section would simply drop off, exposing a very healthy pink skin color without the least bit sunburned. There were variations of this color as the dirt would be in various thicknesses depending on how long it had been since a chip had left his face. We always left Slim a good supply of water, for drinking of course. Slim eventually died and it made papers throughout California and maybe Nevada. At least a reported 400 people were present at his funeral.
On a layout ride with several club members, we made our way from Ballarat up Pleasant Canyon to Clair Camp, an old mining operation about half way to the 7,000 foot saddle on top of the range. We pulled up and this old couple came out all smiles to greet us. Donít think they saw a lot of people in those days and for sure a bunch of motorcyclists were not going to haul off souvenirs. We chatted and they invited us in for coffee and some dessert. As I recall they had built the house, or cabin, whatever, into the side of the canyon to some extent. In any case it was a very unique abode and quite snug. We all gathered around a good size table and enjoyed this most unexpected pleasure. These were genuine folks, living off what they could scrape out of the mountain. We felt in touch with the past for real. Mrs. Clair was a good looking grandmother that you would have wanted to hug. Mr. Clair was just the salt of the earth. We always looked forward to going back and always hoping they would be there. It was a sad day when we received a letter from Mrs. Clair telling that Mr. had gone up to the camp after a snow storm and started shoveling. His heart was not ready for that and he went to meet his maker right there. She, of course, would not be able to continue living at the camp. So it was with sad knowledge that not only had we seen the last of the Clairs, but we could expect the ravaging of the camp, by time, people, or both.
The Really Big Down Hill
Continuing on from Clair Camp the jeep road attained the top of the Panamints at a saddle. The group surveyed the view into Death Valley with Bad Water in sight, the lowest point in the 48 states. We walked out to where we could look down the slope toward what we recognized as the Striped Butte road climbing out of the valley toward the summit of Goler Wash. Hmmm! Could it be possible to ride down this thing? It was well over a mile of really steep descent. The broken shale hillside seemed rideable OK. We talked about it then for some reason, with silly persuasion I guess, got two volunteers to drop over the edge. The smallest guy in the club, Louie, and Humphry, the largest guy at about three hundred pounds went for it. We all stood there like bumps as they headed down. They were doing OK as they grew seriously smaller being swallowed by the distance. Soon only occasional flashes off a bit of chrome told of their location. By the time the steepness gave way somewhat toward where we knew the road was they were simply too far to see. Then we stood there realizing that our two friends had ridden off into the unknown and beyond our knowledge or help, if needed. No other choice but to go that way ourselves. It was breathtaking, that first ride down the biggest hill any California rider had descended. At places the shale would push up in front of our tires under full braking, requiring the brake to be released so we could roll over the mound. So braking was no problem but no one was ready to try for more speed than a good walking pace. All went OK and we found the guys waiting at the bottom to see if we would follow. Back to Ballarat we hightailed, spirits high. We had found the mother of all downhills for the Jackass. A 4mph schedule was set for that section of the course, which was slow but we wanted the riders to savor that section rather than be under pressure.
One year we studied maps and decided to explore Happy Canyon, just north of Pleasant Canyon. It was easy to access the top of the canyon from the saddle at the top of Pleasant. We poked around and discovered a burrow trail leading over that way which started dropping into the canyon. With the trials bike I was riding I speculated that I could probably climb back out on that trail if I had to. The burrows seemed to have found a good route. I canít recall who was along but it wasnít many. So down we went with this trail never letting us down. Nothing we could not expect the riders to deal with. As we sunk well into the canyon we were greeted by a jeep road. Out of the canyon we rode happy as the canyon name promised. Another year we decided to use Happy again. Steve Hurd and I headed up Pleasant on our Matchless Scramblers to run mileage on the loop, leaving Annie waiting in Ballarat. We had an hour and a half in mind for the loop. We dropped into Happy from the top on that delightful burrow trail, spirits high. What fun! When we picked up the jeep road as anticipated we took off like a couple kids skipping school. Suddenly the jeep road vanished! We pulled up. Looking to our right at a side wash we saw where a flood from a cloudburst had burst out of there, gouged out the floor of the canyon. Boulders were moved like ten pins at a bowling alley. What we had to ride on was a good six feet below what had been a really neat jeep road. Weíre not talking dirt, weíre talking rocks of all sizes. The challenge began. The only thing good was we were descending; gravity was on our side. Slowly we picked our way down protecting bike and body. We came to a ledge of rock spanning the canyon with an eight feet or maybe more near vertical drop. No riding down that sucker. Some days you have more good fortune than good sense. I whipped out a tow rope from where a tow rope normally would never be. We dug our heels in and one at a time lowered the bikes as gently as possible, successfully avoiding damage. By the time we cleared the canyon four and a half hours had gone by. Annie did not seem alarmed. She was the perfect desert racerís wife. Back to plan B for the Jackass.
Broken Toe Gulch
On the day we were course marking for the route down the big hill, I was wearing a paperboyís bag over my head with a brass hammer in it. By the time we had reached the top of Goler, and were heading down toward the deep part of the canyon, my bag was empty of stakes and signs. So I was romping on that pretty fast section of jeep road and having my usual good time. I remember being in the right hand track and seeing this big bush that the wheel tracks went right up against. I missed seeing the, at least, barrel sized rock tucked behind it. Suddenly I was going through the air like a pinwheel with the paperboy bag swinging around, even faster, with the momentum of the brass hammer. My foot hurt terrible. I landed in a pile knowing immediately that the very strong and rigid footpeg of my bike had connected with a rock, kicking the back of the bike suddenly to the left, sending me spinning. As so often happens, good luck accompanies bad luck. I always rode with my toes high so that when I hit the rock my foot folded up rather than wrapping around the peg. Probably most important, the strength of those rigid pegs kept me from crushing my foot, as would have probably happened with folding pegs. Someone started my bike for me and we set off down the road again with me in fear of having to put my right foot on the ground, particularly when getting over the big rocks of Goler. The Lord must have helped as my foot stayed off the ground. The boot stayed on until we got back to Trona where we had a motel. I was of little use the next day. After the weekend I was x-rayed to find three toe bones across the top of my foot broken but in place. Cast time again. Well I was not the first victim of that section of road, but rather the third among club members. That stretch had certainly earned the title of "Broken Toe Gulch."
From the previous mentioned saddle at the top of Pleasant, the jeep road heads south along the spine of the Panamints. An interesting and very scenic route. After awhile we would come on a great long and almost flat valley. It would be a valley, except it was the very top of the mountain. More surprising, there was an aircraft landing strip graded the long length of it. It was that flat. The road winded its way around the strip and eventually turned right to the west, and headed to the edge of the mountain. From there the road simply fell off the sheer mountain in switchbacks and near cliff hanging fashion, descending the thousands of feet to the valley floor. There was no room for error on that ride down. The road had a give or take thousand foot, roughly 60 degree slope of considerable rock waiting for any rider who went wide of a turn. You simply would have no chance of not crashing fully to the bottom.
We routed the Jackass down this road after climbing Pleasant Canyon one year. A check point was put in at the top and another at the bottom. I remember it to be about twelve miles on the valley road back to Ballarat and the finish. Could be less. This was the year the event had started near the Trona airport. Pit crews had driven their trucks to the finish for the most part. So the event was ending and a couple guys were hanging around waiting for their buddy to finish. The last riders came in and he wasnít there. The sweep riders came in and he wasnít along the route broken down. The check crews came in and we quickly found he had checked in at the top of the mountain but not at the bottom. "Oh shit!" was the most common expletive heard. We all knew that road and quickly feared the worse. The November daylight was nearing an end.
Several of us got on our bikes and headed back to that road as fast as we could, ahead of darkness. Up the road we went, stopping to search the edge at any likely spot, looking for a scuff where a bike had gone over. We feared what we would find. Finally we had to give it up as the big headlight in the sky went out. Defeated, puzzled, and scared, we made our way back to Ballarat in the near darkness. Before we got organized to leave after discussing what tomorrow would be like, a pickup was coming to Ballarat. We were soon to learn the unbelievable. The two guys had no headlights and no pit crew so they had to beat the darkness back to where the start and their truck was. They did not go back up the mountain with us. When they arrived at their truck here was their buddy curled up in the front seat asleep! Seems he got moody about how he was doing in the event, so he just blew by the check at the bottom, plus the finish, riding back to the truck without saying boo to anyone. His two buddies wanted to kill him on the spot. We were so relieved that we couldnít be mad. It sure gave us an understanding of what it would feel like to lose a rider on one of these runs.* * *
P.S. I hope these memoirs get into the hands of some who have their own memories of the Jackass. I would love for them to be added here.