Those who regularly check this blog might be wondering where the hell I’ve been lately. This week, I have a worthwhile answer. L and I just got back from a weekend trip to Death Valley – a place I’ve wanted to visit ever since we first moved to Los Angeles. We’d been putting off the trip for the past year or so because… well… the name alone sounds pretty daunting, doesn’t it? I decided to do a little reading first and try to figure out what we’d be getting ourselves into.
Death Valley got its name from a group of pioneers who wandered through in the summer of 1849, at the start of the California Gold Rush. Before that, the valley was known to the Shoshone indians as “Tumpisa” (meaning “rock paint”). The 1849 pioneers had set out from Hobble Creek, Utah, ill-prepared for their supposed “shortcut” to the coast. On the western edge of what is now Death Valley National Park, the Bennet-Arcan party waited while two members of their caravan went ahead to scout a path and obtain provisions that would allow the rest of the group to complete the journey. William Lewis Manly remembers his 8-day hike from Death Valley to a ranch near Santa Clarita – 290 miles away, by modern-day roads! – in his memoir Death Valley in ’49.
When Manly and his companion first set out to cross Badwater basin – the lowest point in North America – they surveyed the road ahead with grim determination: “Our task now before us looked very hard for two lone men to accomplish. Language is inadequate to express any one’s feelings without realizing our situation or without some realistic comparison. Those behind us anticipating more than they could realize. Maybe we were all lost, who could tell? Maybe we all might starve, who could tell from the situation as we now saw it? These were very sad reflections, and we weighed the matter to the best of our ability and came to the conclusion that there was no other course for us to pursue than to go ahead live or die.”
Thankfully, they lived and returned to rescue the others. On the way out, one of the weary pioneers said “Goodbye Death Valley.” The name stuck. For years afterwards, their story was embellished to no end. In many fictionalized versions of the tale, all of the pioneers died a horrible death. No doubt inspired by these exaggerations, an 1894 article in a New York magazine (reprinted in Death Valley Lore: Classic Tales of Fantasy, Adventure and Mystery – University of Nevada, 1988) proposed that the legendary death trap would never be conquered: “Civilization may claim our country bit by bit. The conquering flag of freedom may be planted on every square yard of our continent. The sons of liberty may make their home from pole to zone. They can never enter here.”
But such pronouncements didn’t keep people out of Death Valley. People came for the clean, desert air (purported to cure tuberculosis) and for the gold and silver that was alleged to be in the hills. There were plenty of prospectors, including the legendary Charles Breyfogle, who got swallowed up by the secret promises of desert mines. In 1883, workers began mining a less elusive product – borax – from the valley floor. For the remainder of the decade, twenty-mule teams were used to cart huge wagons (usually filled with 45,000 pounds of cargo) from Death Valley to Mojave, 165 miles away. Needless to say, there were people who didn’t survive the hardships of the environment – including summer temperatures as high as 134 degrees Fahrenheit.
In his book To the Edge: A Man, Death Valley and the Mystery of Endurance (Warner Books, 2001), Kirk Johnson explains that even high winds can’t provide relief from the oppressive summer heat: “Meteorologists say that when the air temperature rises above about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the whole equation of airflow and heat absorption begins to shift. After that, wind increasingly adds heat, or at least compounds the difficulty of cooling down. By the time the temperature reaches a heat-index level of 122 degrees – typical conditions for the Badwater-Furnace Creek corridor in July – a wind gusting to 33 miles per hour, which is also not unusual for that time of year, can boost the apparent temperature by another 10 degrees, to 132 in the shade, if any were to be had.” To experience the heat of a summer’s day in Death Valley, he recommends heating your oven to 200 degrees and then sticking your head inside.
In Live! From Death Valley: Dispatches from America’s Lowest Point (Sasquatch Books, 2005), John Soennichsen describes the process of dehydration that results from this heat: “On an average summer day in Death Valley, you can lose over 2 gallons of water just sitting in the shade; hiking you can lose twice as much.” He explains that there are three stages of desert thirst: normal thirst, functional derangement, and structural degeneration. These can be broken down into five phases: the clamorous phase, cotton mouth phase, shriveled tongue, blood sweat and living death. That’s right. You sweat blood. It’s all down hill from there… more than one writer has lingered on the haunting final image of a sun-bleached human skull, so thoroughly dried out that it cracks open on top.
Clearly a person would need a pretty damn compelling reason to subject themselves to this kind of environment. More compelling than borax. More compelling than gold and silver. Johnson proposes that most of the westward pioneers were motivated by “something bigger; call it the pursuit of a new beginning, a new Plymouth landing… The westward movement was a chance – perhaps the first and last that most families would have – to leave the crowded East Coast behind, to obtain land, to build a home, to carve out a bright new future for their children.” The author feels a sense of kinship with those pioneers, because he too was called to Death Valley by something deep inside him.
After his brother committed suicide, Johnson took up running… not because he needed a hobby, but because he needed answers. “I’d become a runner,” he explains, “like some people find God – suddenly, upon turning a corner, without preparation or warning.” He spends the bulk of his book trying to explain his search: “I’ve always believed that there are forces larger than logic, powers of the mind and body that go beyond the Western scientific methods of experimentation and proof and physical law. There are worlds that cannot be imagined, I think, because our imaginations are simply too limited. I’ve always felt a hunger – for something larger, something more, something beyond the accelerated, complicated, maddening, commercial-saturated, numbered, ordered, bought-and-sold world we live in.” This is a guy who talks about running and mysticism in the same breath.
Johnson wanted the ultimate, he wanted to be “burned clean,” and so he entered the most deadly ultramarathon yet devised – a 135-mile trek from the lowest point in the continental United States (Badwater basin) to the highest point (nearby Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevadas). This is a race, he tells us, designed to break the human spirit. In fact, most Badwater racers say that you simply can’t finish unless you can accept being broken. Fellow Badwater vet Dan Jensen explains that “the feeling of having nothing left… is simply one side of your brain – the rational part, or maybe the smarter part – analyzing a situation and saying that enough is enough. The joy and the power come from not listening, from pushing on to that desolate plateau where reason can’t follow. Time stops. There’s no past and no future, only a crystallized, clarified and overwhelmingly powerful present tense that swallows everything.”
Are these people mystics or just crazies? Death Valley seems to draw both kinds. Charles Manson came here in the summer of ’68 (a year before the Tate murders) seeking an entrance to an underground city. There have also been numerous UFO sightings over the years. In the northwestern corner of the park, there is a mysterious plateau where gigantic boulders are said to move without the aid of wind or gravity. All of this… nothing… has a way of infiltrating the imagination, prompting visions and hallucinations alike. John Soennichsen suggests that it is the very existence of such a mysterious wilderness that calls to us, and helps to make our lives worth living… Death Valley is a place where we confront the limits of human knowledge and endurance, and question what lies beyond. It’s an existential crisis just waiting to happen. Welcome to the middle of nowhere – the land of myths.
Our first stop, on the far western side of Death Valley National Park, was the town of Death Valley Junction. Originally known as Amargosa, this one horse town was founded as a railroad stop in 1914. In the following years it was maintained by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, who gradually abandoned it. By 1967, Death Valley Junction was practically a ghost town. That’s when New York painter / dancer Marta Becket passed through and decided to resurrect the local theater. For the past four decades, she’s been performing her one-woman show at the Amargosa Opera House, whether anyone shows up for the performances or not. She is still one of the only people living there, and she maintains that it’s the desolate location that has allowed her to fulfill her dreams.
Ms. Becket’s story is told in the 2000 documentary “Amargosa,” which purports that the town is haunted. According to one storyteller, a film crew (possibly for David Lynch’s “Lost Highway”?) came here a few years ago and attempted to summon ghosts in an abandoned building by using a Ouija board. Anyone who’s worked on the Discovery series “A Haunting” can tell you that this is just asking for trouble. The instigators were answered by an angry male voice and the smell of rotting flesh.
One more creepy factoid… the empty gas station in Death Valley Junction was the first stop in the 1986 horror film “The Hitcher,” with Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell. Harry Medved and Bruce Akiyama’s excellent book “Hollywood Escapes” charts the rest of this duo’s onscreen journey down to the Imperial Sand Dunes near the Mexico border.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. That’s probably what William Lewis Manly was thinking as he looked down into Death Valley from a nearby peak. Dante’s View looks down on Death Valley itself – a long stretch of salt flats, 282 feet below sea level, lying between the Amargosa and Panamint mountain ranges.
Sci-fi fans might also recognize it as the wide view of Mos Eisley spaceport, seen in the original “Star Wars" when Obi Wan Kenobi promises Luke Skywalker that "you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."
It was from the highest peak at Zabriskie Point (on the far right of the third photograph below) that William Lewis Manly first saw Death Valley. This was also the locale of the hippie love-fest in Michael Antonioni’s film “Zabriskie Point” (1970), and the otherworldly terrain in Byron Haskin’s “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (1964).
The lowest point in North America, this area was once known as “Poison Springs” because the bones of dead travelers seemed to pile up here. Not, mind you, because the water was actually poisonous… but because it was nevertheless undrinkable. The salt content is, on average, two or three times that of the ocean. Imagine how painful it must have been to stumble upon this little tease in the middle of the desert… Some travelers, it seems, just didn’t have the will to keep going after that.
When Eric von Stroheim shot his early silent epic film “Greed” here in the summer of 1923, his crew was a little more restless. According to Harry Medved, fights broke out due to the 128-degree heat and iced towels were needed to cool off cast and cameras alike.
To the northwest of Badwater is this strange and dangerous landscape, known as The Devil’s Golf Course. The jagged salt crystals are surprisingly strong and incredibly sharp. The name reinforces the popular idea of Death Valley as a “netherworld theme park.” Charles Manson must have loved it.
Slightly more inviting are these multi-colored hills, Artist's Palette & Golden Canyon, to the north of Badwater.
"Although Death Valley is the most formidable spot in all the desert region, it is not wanting in beauty. Color effects such as artist never dreamed of are here to be seen. It is not the coloring given by vegetation, however, for verdure is lacking. There are no velvety green meadows, neither are there fields of blooming flowers. The coloring of the mountains and plains of this region are penciled in unfading and unchanging colors. These colors are mineral and chemical and are blended in rare harmony - laid by the Master Hand which carved this remarkable region out of the edge of the Western continent. Green and blue of copper, ruddiness of niter, yellow of sulphur, red of hematite and cinnabar, white of salt and borax, blend with the black and gray of the barren rocks and the dark carmine and royal purple and pale green of the mineral-stained granites." - A.J. Burdick, "The Mystic Mid-Region" (1904)
This borax mining station was built by W.T. Coleman, an entrepreneur who came to Death Valley after borax was discovered here in 1873. Harmony Borax Works was active between 1882 and 1889, and "twenty mule teams" (actually 18 mules and two horses) hauled wagons full of the product from this site to the railroad in Mojave - a ten day journey.
"During the five or six years following the opening of the mines, large quantities of borax were taken out and placed upon the market. Then, in the spring of 1888, the mines were closed because it was impossible to find me to work the mines or drive the mules. It became known that few men who went into the mines came out alive. At the end of six or seven months the miner succumbed to the terrific heat and the poisonous atmosphere, or else he was a broken-down invalid incapable of doing further work. It came to be considered simply a form of suicide to engage in the work, consequently the mine-owners were unable to continue operations." - A.J. Burdick, "The Mystic Mid-Region" (1904)
Growing up on the east coast, this is how I always imagined the desert – miles and miles of yellow sand dunes. There’s surprisingly little of that in Death Valley, but these dunes at Stovepipe Wells (like many of the tourist-friendly sites in the park) were used to good effect in the original “Star Wars.” This is where C3PO and R2D2 separate after their arrival on the desolate planet of Tatooine (home to Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi). This is also where scientists find a mysterious tanker in the special edition of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
On the final leg of his 150-mile run across Death Valley, Kirk Johnson experienced one of “Badwater’s unwritten rules”: perfect hallucinations. He’d been told not to expect “trite mirages like shimmering lakes and such,” but rather to expect borderline-religious visions: "Expect the Sistine Chapel, with every detail down to Michaelangelo there on his scaffold; expect people from your junior high school English class to wander suddenly and impossibly out of the desert and say hello; expect, some people say, to see God. Or the devil, for that matter, who was spotted – in running shoes, competing in the race – in 1995. Expect the cacti to begin singing to you at 1 A.M. from the bottomless darkness of the roadside near Lone Pine, as they did to a man named John Radich in 1996. Radich was so lulled by the music that he sat right down where he was in the middle of the highway, oblivious to all else.” If you want to know what Johnson saw on that dark, lonely stretch of road between Panamint Springs and Lone Pine, check out the book… it's a good read.
Next -- "The Wild West, Part 2: Lone Pine & The Alabama Hills"