Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Death Valley--Why?


Death Valley, north of  Ubehebe Crater.
From inside my hammock I watched the late afternoon breeze lift the palm fronds and ate raspberry pie with blueberry crunch ice cream. I had just spent a few weeks camping and hiking in the dust and glare of three deserts and the decadence of shade, comfort and food with flavor and texture was intoxicating.  I had already luxuriated in a shower, I mean, a real shower with water pressure unlike my solar shower which having been left beneath the hatchback window was always warm if nothing but a glorified drizzle.

I had been smitten by Anzel Adams photographs at an early age, and so had always wanted to visit Death Valley. I decided to go before the heat and crowds, and so tacked it on the forefront of my second trip to the Anza Borrego where I wanted to catch the annual Peg Leg Smith Liar’s Contest the first weekend of April. Figured I’d hit the Mojave and Joshua Tree on my way south.

Calico Ghost Town

Calico Ghost Town was nearly deserted when I rolled through the gates. I spent the afternoon exploring the historic mining town along with a few Russian men and a German family on holiday. The beer halls and salons were closed; the cafés and restaurants were closed. It was still off season in this well situated tourist beacon.

Mine shaft shack at Calico Ghost Town.
Upside was that the slopes up to the mine, stone shelters built into the hillside, old school house and a bottle house (recycling multi colored bottled from the saloon) were mostly clear of camera-toting, icon-delving, state-roving excursionists--like me. It was also devoid of rule breaking, rock scrambling, squealing, screeching munchkins. AND, there were no lines, which for me was perhaps the best part of my springtime visit.


During its boom days, there had been more than twenty saloons in the two street village. Not surprising that the saloon (and brothel) were usually the first business to be established in such places. Although not the only bottle house of its kind, the one at Calico is evidence that zero waste and green building technologies are nothing new—humans throughout time have innovated using that which was readily available. In this case, the empties from the hard drinking miners heaped out behind the saloon. 

That night, I camped alone beneath the Milky Way. The wind ripped at the tent but I slept soundly. At dawn, I meandered up to the arched iron gateway sign heaved high above the graveyard by massive stone pillars. It appeared, too, to be empty. Being a mining town, I figured there had to have been at least a few deaths here since Johnny, Larry and Charlie discovered silver. I mean—5,000 souls resided in the vicinity when the 500 mines were at the height of production. This had been the real McCoy--a real honest to goodness Wild West town, tumble weed and all. I could easily imagine a mass of fighting men rumbling out of the saloon, fists flailing while horses clopped down the dirt packed midway pulling creaking wagons laden with ore. It's not hard at all to imagine gunshots and concealed knives welded in a place like this where greed and passions might have easily been provoked. Where were the dead?

Ah, yes. Of course; beneath the piles of rocks. I was west of the Mississippi where grave marking in the land of nothing was a simple, pragmatic business.  Still, I expected more. Come to learn that it is suspect that some of the original tombstones may have been, um, “relocated” to a theme park to the west where a Calico duplicate had been constructed. Hmm. Shady.

My grandfather used to joke with me whenever we pasted a graveyard. “Roody,” he’d shout over his shoulder from his red leather seat, “How many dead people in that graveyard there?” I’d rise off the floor where I had been turning green from his cigar smoke that swirled through the Nova like a noxious serum filing a laboratory vial. I’d plaster my tiny face to the sealed window trying to keep my bile down and begin my pathetic counting. Finger raised, I’d frown and ask him to slow down.

My childish naiveté aside, I found myself thinking of this joke while –with finger raised—I tried to count graves. I’m drawn to boot hills, to the art behind their layout and design as a sacred space, to the sculpted statues and to the poetic verse etched into weathered stone. To the trees, as this is often the only place left in cities with towering canopies. And, of course to the birds found therein. Calico’s had none of the above.

Of the 100 plus bodies that are reportedly interred there, only a tenth have been marked with legible inscriptions and many of those planted on the hill within the last few decades.  None-the-less, the ‘Ghost’ Town wouldn’t have been complete without it.

The Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles 
The Trona Pinnacles, not to be confused with Pinnacles National Monument in Steinbeck’s Soledad, is one of those natural geological wonders that awes. Set back five miles off SR 178, the 500 tufa (calcium carbonate) peeks, some as high as 140 feet, stand out for miles. As with those in Mona Lake, these towers were formed underwater some more than 100,000 years ago when the surrounding area was at the bottom of Searles Lake.

Now a designated National Natural Landmark overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, the isolated “Cathedral City” is conveniently on route to the Borax Company and Death Valley. The picturesque site surrounded by almost 4,000 acres of mud flats with mountain ranges visible in the distance is a popular location for films and commercials. Its lunar landscape is fascinating and a little eerie. No wonder then that it was used for several sci-fi films including Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and the recent remake of Planet of the Apes.

The roads may have been a bit rough on my Celica, but the drive in was well worth it. Hiking among the ancient pillars I saw faces in stone at every turn.  

Primitive camp sites set beneath the steeples are available for up to fourteen day stays. Plan to go during a full moon though to really get the full effect. And take the kids.

Death Valley

Telescope Peak above Badwater Salt Flats
Death Valley (DV) is just that, a low lying, 130 mile long, 14 mile wide valley cradled between four monstrous mountain ranges. And frankly, there isn’t another way to describe it other than to assure you that it is bloody majestic! 


The distance from Telescope Peak in the Panamint Mountains that crowns the range at 11,049 feet to the salt flats at Badwater Basin below is almost twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. Entering it from the west affords jaw-dropping views of the expanse of the place. Standing there looking out at the massive valley and sharp snow capped peaks surrounding it, I could well understand why the Timbisha Tribe (Shoshone) have lived there for more than 1,000 years.

Technically part of the Mojave Desert, the 3,000 square mile National Park holds the record for being the hottest place in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, most of the precipitation that falls there evaporates before ever hitting the ground. That’s some kind of hot. Amazing then that anything at all grows in such heat but things do grow. Ancient bristlecone pine trees, some as old as 3000 years, spawn on the windswept slopes of the mountains surrounding the Valley, which provided a primary food source for the Timbisha.

Given its name by prospectors passing through in the late 1800’s, more deaths occur now from single car accidents than from hyperthermia. Signs posted everywhere state this, yet in the week I was there, I saw several SUV’s flipped off road. Whether from inattention or excessive speeds, cars DO go off the roads here. As in, all the time. There’s undeniably a lot to marvel at and the roads are deceivingly not arrow straight. They are hilly like a roller coaster so the curves hidden in the slumps aren’t always visible. That said, it amazed me to see the number of cyclists braving the shoulder-less roads given the fact that drivers have such trouble staying on them. But, then again, they are a lot unto their own, cyclists.

Badwater Basin from Golden Canyon.
The Badwater Salt Flats in the southern end of the park are the lowest place on the continent at 282 feet below sea level. The Salton Sea comes in second at 226 feet below sea level. Unlike the Salton Sea that still teams with life, the prehistoric inland sea has long since evaporated in DV leaving behind the salt (and borax) pans. It was the 40 miles long and five mile wide salt pan that justified early pioneer settlement in DV.

Twenty Mule Teams

California’s infamous Twenty Mule Teams lugged weighed loads out of the borax, (one of the main ingredients in Pyrex), pits to destinations hundreds of miles outside DV. Contrary to the name though, the buckboards were not pulled by 20 mules. Two were horses. Here’s why.

Firstly the team was to pull three large oak planked wagons designed to haul 10 tons of borax each. By “large” I mean LARGE—the rear wheels stood seven feet tall. The third wagon hauled a 1,200 gallon water tank and other necessary provisions excluding feed which had been deposited at camps on the previous return trip.  The tank water was reserved for the mules and was intended to supplement that which was found along the way. The teamsters drank water from dozens of barrels strapped to the sides of the wagons.

Gower Gulch from Zabriskie Point.
The larger, stronger horses were hitched closest to the wagons and were called the “wheelers” as it was these work horses that surged the team, and thus the wagon wheels, into motion. Although some drove the team from the wagon’s seat, many teamsters drove the mules from the backs of the wheelers. The teams ran from 1883 to 1889 at which point they were replaced by the iron horse.

As would be expected in the enterprising States, the original mule teams were thereafter showcased at the 1904 World Fair held in St. Louis and then paraded down Broadway before being sold into oblivion. Teamed wagons, however, continued to make promotional appearances for the U.S. Borax Company until 1999.

The ‘49ers

Before the miners settled near the borax pits, the gold diggers passed through. Hordes of gold crazed pioneers and immigrants trudged thousands of miles through all kinds of nastiness to reach Coloma after James Marshall let it slip that piles of the glittering ore had been unearthed west of the Sierra Nevada’s.  Only those who, following some bad advice, verged north off the Old Spanish Trail actually intentionally trekked through DV. All others wisely went ‘round or stumbled upon it unintentionally. But, even those few” Lost Pioneers” as they have since been called made it there at Christmas time and so avoided the tell-tale scorching heat and thirst of summer.

Amargosa Mountains in the clouds.
Deep in the belly of Death Valley, I pitched my tent up against sage bushes looking out at snow capped mountains.  Campers sat in their vehicles once their tents were up to avoid the wind. The wind was beginning to pick up but hadn’t become unruly yet. One guy had his tent set up on top of his truck’s cab. I set up the camera on the tripod and shot pictures from my lounge chair while I boiled water for my Spicy Ramen.  The camp ground host, when he came by to get my ticket, said that he was “ tiered-er than the wind” when I asked him how he was doing. Said I would feel that way too if I had been in Death Valley for six month as he had been. Said, as he glanced down at my license plates, that although he too was originally from Laurel, MD, he couldn’t wait to head back home to Oregon at the end of the month. 

The wind was strong and everyone went from their vehicles into their tents as soon as the sun set.  I fell asleep to the sounds of the couple next to me talking softly to one another as couples do at the end of day and finally to the roar of the wind violently slapping my tent. I woke up to them making love at dawn with a gentle cold breeze blowing off the mountains into the valley.

Rooftop tent camping.
As I laid there listening to the sounds of a new day dawning, I imagined those early vagabonds huddled in makeshift tents pitched between their encircled wagons. I recalled those first expositions in search of wealth and land, of the trail blazers like Kit Carson and cartographers like Fremont. And, of the gruesome fate of the Donner-Reed party, specifically of the irony that the first person’s corpse to be consumed by fellow expeditionists was he who first broached the taboo survival tactic. Of how he had in all probability selflessly committed suicide hoping his peers would take the hint. Of the horror each must have felt when they finally did. Of the women who left behind all their possessions, including babies, to trek across the snowbound Sierras in pounds of skirts on makeshift snowshoes on the wild hope of finding help, and the husbands that proceeded them and hadn’t returned.

Those that survived only served to encourage hundreds of thousands to follow in the mass migration westward. Within a few short years, thanks to the brave forerunners who lived to attest that the cross-country trek actually took three times longer than had originally been advertized, California went from being a remote territory with a few hundred Anglo settlers to a state with half a million people. People who had emigrated from all around the globe, (predominately men given that about one in twenty was a woman—ample fodder in itself for another story).

Sobering thoughts with which to begin a day, but the springtime majesty that DV exudes softens and lifts the spirits. After exploring the Crater at dawn then touring Scotty’s Castle, (including the cellar tour of the underground tunnels and innovative engineering systems), and after an afternoon spent walking the Salt Flats at Badwater and catching the sunset at Dante’s View, (which felt like being at the top of the world), I camped at 100 feet below sea level. I was again within view of snow capped mountains, but this time I was surrounded by boy scouts and their parents.

Tidbits of conversations floated through the night: “My gynecologist says,” “There are so many stars”, “That would be like Clinton…” There was an older couple next to me already in their tent talking to one another in flirty terms as if they were new lovers, which they may well have been. I smile at the reality that life forges on, in one way or another and that love happens, regardless of age or distance or misfortunes.

Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley.
Shortly after dawn, I met an ex Marine at the trail head of Mosaic Canyon. He had long curly hair and a full beard, was young and sweet. We chatted for a bit in the shade of his car while he waited for friends. As love happens, so too do connections. After speaking with him, I spent the remainder of the day thinking of trauma and how we as humans survive it. I thought of the horrors experienced by the Donner Party. How when found months later, they were emotionally lingering on the brink of reality. Doesn’t matter much what traumatizes us—trauma is trauma. What I find so interesting is how we—most of us—manage to survive the unthinkable.

It doesn’t take a specialist to tell me that it takes great courage sometimes to live, let alone survive this life. It takes extreme courage to embark into the unknown whether with ambivalent dreams of wealth and fortune or with the conviction that one’s weapons and power bring freedom to the oppressed. Because we never know at the onset whether the outcome will be what we had anticipated.

It was high noon when I arrived back at the Dunes. I had meant to hike them either early or late in the day given the blazing sunshine, but c’est la vie. Who would have imagined that playing in sand would result in a broad smile plastered on my face for the duration of the hike. I aimed my sights on the largest, farthest dune.

Walking the crest, I met two couples. As we sat drinking water, marveling at the views, we noticed a group of people hauling something up a nearby dune. We couldn’t tell what it was so I use my camera to zoom in on them. It was a queen size air mattress that they’d brought with them. We watched while they inflated it then discuss how best to use it as a sled. After one try with the felt side down they seemed to have agreed that plastic side down would yield better results. It did. I filmed them as they were filming themselves. It wasn’t just me, it would seem, that was feeling their inner child come alive in the piles of sand.

Mesquite Dunes and the Paramint Mountains.
I leaped wide-legged, from one leg to another like the Michelin Man as I came down the dune on my return. The large dunes are so steep it made coming down like that easy. It was SO MUCH FUN, I whooped the whole way.  Granted, I am a very simple person who is easily pleased, but the instinct must have been a natural one because the two couples that were up there with me came down that way, too.

Shoshone

Later that evening, after setting up camp on the lush hot spring watered lawn at the Shoshone Campground, I venture over to the Crowbar Saloon and Grill, one of two local eateries. Originally from Las Vegas, the barkeep tells me that she is marrying an Australian elevator installer who she’s been dating for a few years and although she doesn’t like winters will be moving to Washington State with him so that he may be closer to his children. Now that right there is love.

I had pitched my tent near a culvert streaming warm water from the local hot springs that also fed the onsite pool. I fell asleep and awoke to the sound of water trickling. Nothing sounds as good as the sound of water after a week in the desert. In the morning as I sipped my tea, I soaked my feet in the thermal water and wallowed in the luxury of it. I was glad to have found this unpretentious oasis.

Later, I ordered the Euro Breakfast at Café C’est Si Bon consisting of poached eggs, cheese, bread and fruit and ate in a garden watered by that same aquifer. Surrounded by birdsong and bamboo that grows around the periphery of the Café’s porch, I watch the pet pig out back eat her breakfast of food scraps brought her by some campers. I was off to see Marta Becket’s The Sitting Down Show at the Amargosa Opera House later in the day but had hours yet so enjoyed a long, slow breakfast reading in the shady grove.

The Ballerina

Amargosa Hotel veranda.
Arriving in Death Valley Junction back in 1967 to repair a flat tire, NYC born and bred Becket stumbled upon the abandoned theater. Within weeks she was tenant and had taken up residence in the adjacent run down hotel with peeling exterior and separating laminate doors painted Caribbean blue.  

Forty some odd years later, the exterior of the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel looks the same but the interior has been transformed. Decades after she arrived in the minuscule desert town, she is still performing her own plays, singing her own compositions on the stage she had reclaimed as a young starlet with classical training in piano, voice and dance. Her colorful murals adorn the walls and ceiling not only in the theater proper but in the restaurant, and throughout the adjacent hotel originally owned by the Borax Company. Paint it and they will come had been her motto.

Ceiling mural, Amargosa Opera House.
And it worked; they came. They still come. Waiting in a line that wrapped around the courtyard was a wide variety of people. Young, old, fancy, common, wealthy, not wealthy, and foreigners as well as locals who had seen her shows hundreds of times. The ramshackle theater clings on to dear life in the desert yet there we all were—to see her, this desert icon. Overgrown mesquite trees pour over adobe walls from unused courtyards with tumbleweeds blown against locked cast iron fences.  The paint cracked and peeling appears as if a good blustering wind could sand blast all the clinging chips clear off the adobe. We stood and waited in the warming afternoon sunshine.

When the doors finally opened, we filed in to find seats, marveling at the murals as we did so. I sat next to a beautiful woman with great hair who was saving a seat for her girlfriend. Her name was Lake, after Erie she explained. And no, her last name isn’t Phoenix.  I asked. As folks filled the halls, I gazed around. Although the murals Becket has painted over the last thirty years are world class folk art, there is evidence that some of the décor has been makeshift; the crafty theater lights were made from painted coffee cans, for instance, and beaded fringe has been glued around the edge.

AmargosaFor $15, I sat in a packed audience with more than a hundred people who had come to Death Valley Junction to see her re-enact tidbits of past shows. At 87, she has retired her toe slippers and performs the one woman hour long matinee from her wheelchair. Encumbered with serious arthritis, Marta fumbled with props and lines but most were delivered without flaw after years of retaining things to memory. None of her plays are written down, but many have been recorded on VHS sold in the gift shop off the lobby. 

Becket’s performance was priceless. I wouldn’t have missed the chance to see such a legendary American icon perform for the world. One of the primary reasons I had come to Death Valley was to see her. I am ever glad I bothered. 

1 comment:

  1. The way you sprinkle the fruits of your obviously extensive research into your travel documentary, and spicing it with snippets of your past makes for delightful reading. I seemed to experience minute flashes of insight reflecting not only what you saw, but your perceptions. I can't wait to follow your footprints.

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