Barry Hathaway

Surviving Death Valley On Suzuki's Middleweight Adventure Bike

Three days of dunes, salt flats, jagged boulders, steep canyons, and sand washes

B

ack in 1849, the forgotten soul who gave Death Valley its name escaped that godforsaken desert with fewer men in his party than he started with. In the years since, infernal heat and scarce water have killed quite a few more. My buddy Jeb Scolman and I hoped that with a couple of modern machines and some gasoline we could do better. We figured that the diverse topography of the Panamint region would be the perfect place to test the 2017 Suzuki V-Strom 650XT to answer the question: Can $2,300 worth of tires and accessories (primarily from Twisted Throttle) transform a beloved budget middleweight into a workable, or at least enjoyable, desert exploring machine? Three days of dunes, salt flats, jagged boulders, steep canyons, and sandy washes should help us find out.

Suzuki V-Strom 650XT
Venturing farther on the nicely priced Suzuki V-Strom 650XT. We mounted adventure tires, auxilary lights, handguards, luggage, and more to get the Strom ready to roam.Barry Hathaway

“Workable” and “enjoyable” are two words seldom attached to the attempts to mine fame and fortune from that bleak, beautiful expanse. The stone ruins and rusting machinery that dot the landscape are monuments to hardship, heartbreak, and greed. We chose our October dates carefully to avoid the valley’s infamous heat. Summer months have seen temperatures climb above 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Despite a historical design brief that’s put the V-Strom in the all-asphalt category, the end user has utilized both 650 and 1000 versions to see the unpaved world. With the 650 XT’s gold-anodized wire-spoke wheels and fuzzy visions of a Dakar-like silhouette, we pushed beyond the expected terrain; Suzuki’s 650XT marketing material always says “road.” There is a “trail” or “dirt” to be found.

But we let adventure be our guide. And Surprise ­Canyon lived up to its name when I high-centered the Suzuki on a foot-tall gravel berm. Jeb's 2007 Husqvarna TE510 had no such limitations, but with 5 inches of ground clearance at the SW Motech skid plate and less under suspension compression, the V-Strom's biggest shortcoming showed itself early.

Death Valley
Rusty equipment is part of the adventure in Death ­Valley and Panamint. Engine-mounted skid plate had its moments.Barry Hathaway

Miles of trails with all manner of loose quartzite, ­dolomite, limestone, and basaltic lavas proved infinitely more challenging on the V-Strom than the featherweight Husky. The Suzuki weighs 476 pounds before modifications and without luggage, and its more street-oriented ground clearance demanded that I choose my line carefully. My oil filter hung low, like a ripe plum waiting to be picked. Back at the office, a CW editor had eyed my new bash plate (to help protect said oil filter) and offered, “As long as you don’t hit anything, you should be fine.” At the front, this unit bolts to the engine cases.

As with any big adventure bike, things can go pear-shaped quickly. So I concentrated, working, sweating, and struggling to manage the weight through a 3-mile stretch of what seemed like highly technical riding to me. At the end, I needed to rest. Jeb pulled alongside.

“This is work,” I hollered.

“I’m just riding,” he laughed, and throttled away.

Desert riding
Ideal adventure riding and rustic signs to guide your path to freedom.Barry Hathaway

It’s no surprise the experiences on the two bikes couldn’t have been more different. Jeb romped playfully over any terrain and went where he wanted, his mind and motorcycle meandering freely. I planned, plotted, and sometimes bashed over rough stuff, my speed kept in check by mechanical sympathy and ­street-tuned suspension. It was an exercise in trying to keep grapefruit-size rocks from ending my ride. Successfully navigating slow, technical climbs or descents over large boulders was aided by the excellent TKC 80 tires and the XT’s strong, wire-spoke aluminum rims. But an occasional resounding thunk! to the bash plate proved inevitable and ultimately lead to cracking in the case around the mounting bolts.

V-Strom 645cc

V-Strom 645cc V-twin makes for fun in the sand

Barry Hathaway

The fast, smooth, and twisty gravel was where I had my revenge. I could uncork the Suzuki, winding close to redline in second or third gear before braking and backing the bike into tight turns. The anti-lock brakes on the V-Strom can’t be turned off, but removing the ABS fuse is an excellent workaround. Crankshaft Junction to Jackass Flats was a blur—fast and fun. Not off-road, mind you, just a good dirt road. The Suzuki was in its element.

Still life with the V-Strom
Dirt bike and Adventure bike, a still life.Barry Hathaway

Just south of Eureka Dunes, things heated up at the base of Steel Pass. The craggy canyon closed in on us, and an onerous rocky climb appeared. I looked back at Jeb. Steam hissed from his bike. A rock had holed the radiator, and coolant dripped to the ground. The trip changed. It was time to make only good decisions. Jeb spoke mostly in expletives as we walked 100 yards up the canyon to spy four more gnarly climbs over watermelon-size sharp rocks. It would be the worst-case scenario for the Husky’s cooling, and a nightmare on the heavy Suzuki.

Back north we went, into the deep sand at the foot of the dunes. Our heads filled with the new uncertainties and the urgency that only a leaking radiator in the desert can provide, but we came upon a caravan of cool, old dudes in cool, old Toyota 4x4s. They were experienced, they were prepared, and they had pour-in stop-leak. It plugged the hole in Jeb’s radiator almost instantly.

Riding away from the sunset
Is this the light of heaven upon us?Barry Hathaway

Our bypass route added 50 miles, which seemed like a lot more as the sun got lower and we wondered about remaining fuel range. At the Waucoba Saline Road turn off, my gauge read half a tank, but with the odometer inoperable as a result of pulling the ABS fuse, I began to worry. Four miles down the road, my gut was churning. We needed truth. So we stopped, I opened the tank and did the old slosh test. There was far less fuel than the optimistic gauge implied. We never would have made it. Instead, we turned and rode 25 miles to Big Pine for fuel.

History still holds
Tattered history pasted to the wall looks a lot like today.Barry Hathaway

The road to and from Big Pine is twisty and almost entirely paved. Here, the V-Strom shone, eating up 40 miles of sport touring right in the middle of a desert adventure. Comfort, wind protection, smoothness, ease of handling, even on these chunky knobby tires, made easy work.

Jeb was forced to fall in line as the sun dipped. His headlight glimmered like a candle compared with the Suzuki’s dazzling aftermarket Denali lights on high beam, which provided more than enough illumination for the both of us. Our diversion meant that we spent a full two hours riding in the dark to get back to base camp.

Two different tools to explore
Two different tools to explore—both go far in different ways. One makes for a great daily ride and urban-escape device, no trailer required.Barry Hathaway

Were there times when Jeb left me in the dust because of the V-Strom’s limitations? Yes, but I didn’t see that Husky in my mirrors when I was pounding through those paved twisties to Big Pine. Would it have been smart for me to persevere over rocky Steel Pass? Probably not, but the Suzuki was a ton of fun on the fast, smooth Saline Hot Springs road. The V-Strom’s limitations off-road are real, and the bike proved to be too much for a novice dirt rider to truly enjoy on anything much rougher than a gravel road. But working within those parameters, there’s a healthy amount of fun and adventure available to the enthusiast who doesn’t demand rally-level dirt competence. The 650XT emerged from three glorious days exploring Death Valley without skipping a beat, and being able to then hop on the highway and cruise at 75 mph all the way home is a winning combination for plenty of riders. It’s no dirt bike, but that might be the best thing about it.