Kawasaki 1700 Voyager: Death Valley

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Motorcycle Touring

The dashed centerline, rough-edged pavement, and sandy shoulder converge into a distant point. I set the cruise control at 80, and lean back in the near-still cocoon behind the windshield and watch the numbers on the odometer mount-yet, the point refuses to budge. Welcome to the Mojave Desert.

Roads tell us what motorcycles to ride, if we listen. The lonely ruler-straight roads surrounding Death Valley are quite demanding in their own way. Fussy handling is not rewarded; stability and predictability are virtues. Horsepower plays second fiddle to torque, as the roads require roll-on power.

Significant chunks of time are spent in the saddle, so you must be comfortable and at one with the bike. You want to be massaged, and nothing soothes the long-distance rider more than a large V-twin leisurely thumping away.

A traditionalist’s motorcycle slyly infused with modern technology, the 2010 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Voyager ABS understands the burdens of straight lines, and smoothly turns what could be a road to ruin into a path to pure pleasure.

Riding from the Los Angeles metropolitan area to my base of exploration in Lone Pine, Calif.-a small town bumped up against the eastern face of the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountain range-gives the Voyager an opportunity to display its mettle on the region’s busy freeways before engaging US Highway 395 at its southern terminus.

With nearly 104 cubic inches at my disposal, distributed in a virtually square configuration, the Voyager’s muscular, discreetly liquid-cooled powerplant is up to the job of dicing with the trucks and impatient commuters.

Yes, the almost 900-pound beast is something of a handful in a crowd, but the motor’s willingness to perform keeps my mind at ease.

Tired of the cacophony of Interstate 15 as it approaches Cajon Pass, I exit at Glen Helen Parkway. I wait for a miles-long freight train at a crossing before winding my way through Devore, a town left to fallow when the Interstate replaced Route 66.

From there, I can access a forgotten stretch of The Mother Road and can enjoy a few carefree miles of gently twisting two-lane road before returning to a now less-crowded freeway.

Climbing the steep Cajon grade, I am reminded that 108 ft/lbs of torque is available at less than 3000 rpm, and I pass every other vehicle on the climb at an engine speed that feels both unhurried and untested.

Power is a good thing. Highway 395 makes its presence known soon enough, as does the sluggish local traffic.

We chomp at the bit as the Voyager and I make our way to Adelanto, a grimy town with a quarter of its population living below the poverty line.

A stop for gas is delayed by a local resident complaining that a fax the gas station sent the day before never made its destination. The argument seemed endless, and I wondered if I would arrive at mine any sooner than the errant fax.

Finally refueled, Highway 395 opens up north of that last bastion of semi-civilization, and I can relax. The throb of the Voyager makes me feel at home; I settle into an extraordinarily comfortable seat with just enough lower back support to take the edge off a long, straight journey.

The only distractions along the way are the gusts of wind from 18-wheelers blasting along in the opposite direction only a few feet to my left-our closing speed somewhere in the range of 150 mph. The frame-mounted fairing not only protects me nicely from the high-speed windblast I am responsible for, it is also a steadying influence even when attacked at an angle.

The 395’s last sequence of noteworthy curves before Lone Pine is through the mining triumvirate of Red Mountain, Johannesburg and Randsburg. Tenaciously hanging on, these near ghost towns are worth a closer look.

Johannesburg has a 19th century desert cemetery that is modest, yet dignified, that is tended to by a self-funded organization of locals. At the gravesite of Clarence Leikam-a WWII vet who died at 35 years of age in 1956-a poem reads in part, “With only the sand for a blanket, instead of a flower strewn bed, my body shall rest from its labors.”

I do not plan to be buried when I expire, but I would be content to find this humble resting place to be my Final Destination.

Just north, via a twisting single-lane paved road through the mining district, is the Randsburg General Store. There, I partake in a satisfying chocolate malt that is handmade at a 1904 soda fountain.

Heavy on the malt, the portion is more than generous. After the tall, 12-ounce glass is filled, I am presented with a stainless steel mixing cup with enough thick liquid to refill the glass twice. I do so, and don’t leave a drop behind.

From there, 395 returns to its straight and narrow ways, and the lazy sixth-speed overdrive is ideal. Keeping me company during the ride is a built-in entertainment system, with a retro-look that masks modern conveniences.

The Voyager offers a choice of AM, FM, CB, and weather, along with the ability to integrate an iPod and XM radio. Forty-watt stereo speakers can throw out a number of decibels, but I am wearing Bell’s new full-face Vortex helmet, so I have installed the wired headset for optimum sound. Talk radio keeps me alert, with the CB interrupting occasionally to make me aware of any developments ahead on the road.

There are none, of course. Highway 395 has been recently widened in many places, and a divided highway has replaced a blood-spattered two-lane alleyway. It alternates between the alignments, so my mind gets the stimulus of irregular change and the Voyager establishes itself as an ideal companion.

There is enough room on the floorboards and seat to reposition myself as needed to keep my joints flexible, and the bars allow me to sit up straight, slouch, or lean back. My forward view is through the tall, optically high-quality windshield, reminding me that I am not braving the elements alone.

While Lone Pine may seem like nothing more than a wide spot in the road-and something of a speed trap with a 25 mph maximum through town-it has a storied film history.

Countless Westerns have been shot among the graceful granite boulders of the Alabama Hills east of town, and the dramatic rocks and mountains are so multi-purpose, that the sets it has provided range from Cary Grant’s Gunga Din and Errol Flynn’s Charge of the Light Brigade in the 1930s to Maverick with James Garner and Mel Gibson in the 1990s.

Physical landmarks in the area pay homage to celluloid-Lone Ranger Canyon, Gene Autry Rock, Gary Cooper Rock, and Movie Road, to name a few. Whitney Portal Road-which takes you into the Sierras where Humphrey Bogart’s High Sierra was shot-bisects the area, with the celebrated Tuttle Creek Road to the south. This one-and-a-half lane rough road takes you on a roller coaster tour through some of the most exotic terrain in America.

Here, the Voyager’s suspension soaks up Tuttle Creek Road’s many imperfections, and the high-tech braking system comes in quite handy when the area’s few commuters come flying through during what passes as Lone Pine’s rush hour. The Voyager’s ABS and K-ACT (Kawasaki Advanced Coactive Braking Technology) systems work in concert perfectly.

We are all familiar with ABS-and the Voyager uses the same high-quality system used on the Concours 14-but the K-ACT is indispensible on a tricky road such as this. K-ACT is a brake-linking arrangement that works with both the hand and foot controls, seamlessly balancing the operation of front and rear calipers.

A veteran hand brake aficionado, I come to rely on the foot brake almost exclusively. This allows me to keep a full grip on the bars on a swooping road with repeated blind corners that is peppered with on-coming traffic throwing caution to the wind.

While the sudden appearance of cars on the unfamiliar road is startling, I am able to apply the brake pedal aggressively without worrying about skidding, knowing that the front binders are also being optimally applied. My deceleration is rapid, predictable, and safe.

Lone Pine also serves as a launching point toward the northern end of Death Valley National Park. Skirting the northeast side of artificially dry Owens Lake-the water that would flow to the lake is redirected to the famously greedy Los Angeles Department of Water & Power-takes you to Highway 190, one of California’s great open roads.

A climb from the lake takes me a mile above sea level, as I swoop gently through the desert. I do have to keep an eye out for the occasional Highway Patrol car, as I have decided to run the road without bothering to consult with the retro-styled round speedometer.

Riding the Voyager, I skip past the unpaved turn-offs for Saline Valley, even though they can take me to the legendary Racetrack Playa. Happily, I am rewarded with the serpentine drop to the sleepy desert town of Panamint Springs.

More suited for a sport bike, the 11-mile section of road is perfectly paved and the elevation drops 2800 feet. Here, I remember that, although the Voyager is a big, touring cruiser, Kawasaki is a performance company.

The aforementioned ABS and K-ACT braking system supplies me with plenty of confidence as I dive through the corners-some with only a guardrail between me and a 1000-foot drop. The Voyager’s Bridgestone Exedra tires grip tightly, even as the bike runs out of ground clearance-which happens later, rather than sooner.

This road is a blast in either direction, with the brakes put to the test on the way to Panamint Springs and the torquey motor doing the yeoman’s work on the way back.

Worth a quick stop for those of us who just can’t leave the office behind, Panamint Springs Resort has a free Wi-Fi network and cell phone service in a region where these communications technologies are hard to come by.

From there, I cross straight across Panamint Valley, and then make another climb to nearly a mile high, before the long, nearly straight drop to Stovepipe Wells at sea level.

The ride tests the climate control capabilities of both my Tour Master Sonora Air jacket and the Voyager, as the morning temperatures were in the mid-40s in Lone Pine and mid-80s this afternoon in Stovepipe Wells. In the hot areas, the Sonora is fully vented and exceedingly comfortable.

For the chilly portions of the ride, the insulated portion of the two-stage Aqua-Therm liner keeps me warm in conjunction with the Voyager’s fairing. I also switch from Cortech’s Thinsulate-equipped Scarab Winter gloves in the cold to its perforated Accelerator gloves when the temps warm up. Cortech Mod jeans were just right in all conditions; I was worried a bit about the cold, though it did not turn out to be a problem.

The 2010 Voyager sports new guards on the headpipes to direct heat away from the rider, and they can be retrofitted to the ’09. I am comfortable during the 40-degree temperature swing, and I don’t bother to open the foot vents to cool my Chippewa Harness boots.

Perfect for operating the heel-toe shifter on the Voyager-which has a handy neutral-finder at stops-the Chippewas are fine for walking and look good in restaurants. A loss of balance in a parking lot gave me a chance to test the protection of the left boot and, although I did not drop the bike, my foot got wedged between the pavement and the muffler-something that could have been disastrous with lesser footwear.

The return ride to Lone Pine is rewarding, as the sun sets and I put the triple headlights to work-outrunning them when I see I’m alone-heading toward another vanishing point. That night, a meaty half-rack of ribs at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant in Lone Pine perfectly hits the spot.

Heading back nearly non-stop to Los Angeles the next morning after a fine breakfast at the quirky Ranch House Cafe in Olancha, I settle in for re-entry into the rat race, happily refreshed and plotting my next voyage.

Photography by Adam Campbell