Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Death Valley Weekend

Here I am once again, apologizing for the long drought of posts. Rest assured, I have several posts in the pipeline, one of them nearly complete. I have however been distracted from writing by a cascading series of computer disasters that at last culminated in my purchasing of a big new tower computer and its provisioning with a dozen terabytes of storage.

Since then, my time has largely been occupied by the re-assembly of my computing domain, jigsaw-puzzle fashion, from my many far-flung backup locations. In the process, I came upon a treasure-trove of articles from my early days as a writer, when I was doing pretty much nothing but writing whatever was on my mind.

Of course, a writer tends to look upon things he wrote over two decades ago with a certain affectionate loathing, and most of the articles, if they ever see the light of day, will require extensive re-working. But I did find one article that, to my great surprise, is ready to go. It is a narrative of a Memorial Day weekend Wifey and I spent with our good friends, then as now, Nik and Jo. Wifey and I have determined that this occurred in 1995.

It occurred to me that the article would serve as a nice proffer to my blog readers of my intention to return soon to active posting. And so, with Nik and Jo's kind consent, I offer it forthwith, with no changes other than the deletion of a few references to then-current, now-obscure events, the explanation of which would be too painfully laborious to read (and write). This piece is already plenty long. Other than that, I have changed nothing, and you will no doubt notice that back then I used commas as if they cost a quarter each.

There is one obscure reference I did not delete, because it's an integral part of the story: “hell-architecture.” This refers to a place in Montrose that I lived in for several years in the early Eighties that was known among my circle as “Hell House.”

When I took the place over from my good pal—let's call him Lou—who had lived there for several years, it was already legendary for its many distinctive features. I could write an entire post about Hell House, and someday maybe I will, but for the sake of this story you only need to know a few essential facts.

Hell House seemed to have a will of its own. For example, the place was as hot and stuffy as Death Valley itself when it was hot outside, and cold and drafty as the North Pole when it was cold outside. Clearly, the place knew what conditions were the most uncomfortable at any given time, and made adjustments accordingly.

Another curious feature was the many items attached to its walls, the function of which defied explanation. Mostly, these took the general form of randomly-shaped pieces of wood, sometimes stacked upon one another, often with strange pieces of handmade hardware attached. None of us could ever imagine any possible utility any of these items might once have had. We eventually concluded that they were artifacts of some obscure pre-Columbian religion.

Thus, hell-architecture, as I use it in the following, means “a structure that shows evidence of Hell House-like qualities or features.”

Thus fortified, you are now prepared to move forward into the past.

* * *

Nik and Jo like to go camping in Death Valley. Nik loves what he calls its “moonscapes devoid of vegetation,” and has utilized them several times as striking backgrounds for his photographs. Jo, I think, simply enjoys meeting the challenge of camping in style.

Some time ago, Nik and Jo invited Lydia and me to accompany them on a Memorial Day weekend trip there. When Lydia and I agreed, he immediately and with great enthusiasm began to plan the trip. He graciously took care of all the details, including the all-important morning coffee. Virtually all Lydia and I had to do is show up.

At last getaway Friday came. Nik and Jo left very early in order to secure two prime campsites. The plan was for us to come a few hours later; Nik would call us from the campground on our cellular phone en route to give us the exact location.

Unfortunately, Lydia had some last-minute business to attend to, so when Nik’s call came we were still home at the Doll House. We loaded up the car and set out at 2 P.M. We hit a traffic jam in Montebello that did not dissipate until Barstow.

We pulled into the campground in a somewhat crazed state at about 10 P.M. I was afraid Nik and Jo would already be asleep. Not only were they still awake, but Jo had an excellent dinner of game hen and grilled vegetables waiting for us. After Nik helped me set up our tent, we dined in style.

The next day dawned overcast and muggy. It took four pots of Nik’s strong but excellent coffee to revive us. We spent the day exploring the valley floor. Death Valley, like all of California, saw record rainfall this past winter, so Nik’s beloved moonscapes were uncharacteristically scarred with vegetation.

We drove by a marvelous old huge stone lodge called the Furnace Creek Inn. Nik suggested we give it a look-see later in the day, but I noticed as we passed a sign saying “Closed for the Season.” I asked Jo whether there really were seasons in Death Valley; she replied that there were but two: Too Cold and Too Hot.

We drove first to Dante’s View, which overlooks a massive salt flat called Badwater. Looking down at the view, I began to understand what Nik had been talking about: the place was perhaps a bit more colorful than the Moon, but it certainly did not look like a Class M planet. The only things marring the effect were occasional clumps of beautiful little desert wildflowers, which seemed to annoy Nik with their presence.

We then descended down to Badwater itself, which at its lowest is 282 feet below sea level—the lowest point in the United States. The place was very crowded. Oddly enough, most of the people seemed to be German. We walked out on the salt flats themselves, which were still moist from the winter rains.

To my great horror, Lydia picked up a bit of the well-trampled, dirty white earth and tasted it. “Hey, this really is salt!” she declared triumphantly.

I snapped, “Great! Now you have Teutonic hoof-and-mouth disease!”

“But I walked all the way out here to a clean area!” Lydia protested.

Nik grinned. “Now, Rob, Lydia was merely conducting a scientific experiment.”

Jo added, “Yeah—taste is a perfectly valid way to assess the composition of something.”

Alone among the sane, I remained unconvinced. “Well, I still think that you’d better gargle with some Liebfraumilch later.”

We then drove to the Devil’s Golf Course, a part of Badwater so named because gases rising from below the salt cause little spherical formations that resemble golf balls. Unfortunately, the winter rains had destroyed this effect, and the place looked more like the Devil’s Sand Trap.

As we drove away, it began to drizzle, which Nik said was a fairly rare occurrence on the valley floor. Lydia was unimpressed nonetheless; she said that it always rains when she goes to the golf course.

We next visited Artist’s Palette, which is aptly named. It consists of a small outcropping of hills forming a natural amphitheater, featuring scattered patches of muted pink, blue, green, yellow and purple earth. It looked like a giant chalk painting funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

After this was Zabriskie Point, which is supposed to be of great interest but was to me quite unremarkable. From it, one looks out upon a tiny valley-ette, perhaps a tenth of a mile across at its widest, which looked to me like a Caltrans excavation minus the lounging workers.

At this point we headed back to camp for lunch. We returned to find ourselves surrounded by even more Germans. It was quite astonishing to us that so many of them had traveled so far to camp in such an inhospitable place. After some discussion, we concluded that it is wise to view bargain package tours with circumspection.

After lunch, we were all in need of a good lie-down. Bouncing along dirt roads in muggy 92-degree air had taken its toll. Fortunately, the sky cleared in the late afternoon, and we spent a pleasant evening star-gazing through Nik’s powerful yet compact new telescope.

The next day dawned clear and very hot, so we decided to leave the valley floor and explore the higher (and cooler) elevations. As the mercury rose to an eventual 110 degrees at our campsite, our intrepid guide Nik pointed his trusty Tracker south to gold-mine country.

As we left, we stopped off at the Furnace Creek Resort, a small concession area that has guest bungalows, a golf course, a store, two restaurants and a saloon. Lydia and I took particular note of this last item.

On our way southward, we passed through the Devil’s Cornfield, so named because the creosote bushes there had arranged themselves in a remarkably even-spaced configuration that resembled rows of hellish corn. Nik commented, “You'll find that the Devil owns a lot of real estate here.”

After a time, we left the glass-smooth surface of California 190 for a rude dirt road. Its washboard surface was pitched at just the right frequency to induce harmonic resonance in the Tracker’s chassis. We hummed along like a 64-foot organ pipe for about nine miles until we reached the site of Skiddoo, a gold-mining town that existed from about 1907 to 1915, then disappeared without a trace.

Once there, we stopped to stretch our legs. It was oddly beautiful up there. Nik was right when he said that this was a desert unlike any other. The sky was a clear, deep blue, the temperature was in the mid-70s, and everywhere one looked there were clumps of charmingly beautiful little wildflowers, some of which are evidently found only in Death Valley. It was astonishing to see vibrant orange poppies and pastel-hued daisies springing from otherwise barren earth. Lydia found this an image heavy with meaning.

Nik had brought along a book on ghost towns, and as we took in the spectacle he read us the story of Skiddoo. After he was done, I looked at the book, and read that a few miles further on stood the remains of the Skiddoo stamping mill. I was surprised, considering how assiduously the Forest Service had demolished all such structures in the Angeles National Forest.

Evidently the National Park Service is less concerned than the Forest Service about idiots hurting themselves, because there the mill stood, just as the book said, a few miles further on. It had deteriorated noticeably from when the picture in the book was taken, but it was still spectacular: well over 100 feet long, it was composed of several levels built down a steep incline.

It reminded me of one of those cable cars that used to ascend the incline to Echo Mountain House above Pasadena, except that it was fifty times bigger. There were obvious signs of a recently-begun trussing of the structure, but otherwise the site looked as if it had lain untouched for the eighty years since its last use.

It seemed as if the workers had simply laid down their tools, walked away, and forgotten all about the place. There were implements, now nothing more than lumps of rust suggesting their former shape, strewn all about. An ore car still rested on its tracks, awaiting its next load. Towering above everything, the four stamping mills stood in a row, silhouetted by the sun, still seemingly complete.

The fact that all this had remained evidently unvandalized for so many years by all but Mother Nature improved my assessment of human nature just a bit.

Curious as to what other treasures these mountains held, I picked up the book again. I saw that a few miles further up the paved road was another dirt road leading to another collection of promising sites, all bearing the rather odd name of Aguereberry. We went to investigate.

I will omit much of the historical detail for brevity’s sake, but perhaps a little background is in order here. Aguereberry was a Basque who came to Death Valley in search of gold. He found it—or so he thought: a vein that initially assayed out very promisingly. As it turned out, there was little actual gold in his claim.

Nonetheless, after securing sole rights he began to mine the vein in earnest, establishing a little compound nearby. His best efforts yielded scarcely enough gold to live on, so to augment his income he hired himself out to tourists as a guide. To provide an attraction, he graded and paved a road up to a mountaintop from which one could take in a view of much of the valley and the surrounding mountains.

We hummed up that road, long since stripped of its pavement, and took in Aguereberry Point. It was a restful place, miles away from the nearest German. In fact, the only other person up there was an aging hippie sitting on a rock in front of a view camera. His hardy Bug, which I reckoned he had owned since his youth, stood faithfully nearby. I anticipated that the presence of a fellow large-format photographer would pique Nik’s interest, but he quickly walked off in another direction.

I expect this was because the fellow’s appearance was rather off-putting. He was shirtless, and his skin, tanned cancerously dark, draped over his midriff like a leather muu-muu. He was otherwise quite inoffensive, however; spying my Angels cap, he initiated a friendly chat about their performance and prospects this season.

After this fellow and I had managed the Halos to a pennant, Lydia and I hiked up to the very top of the mountain. Badwater lay 7000 feet below us, and Mt. Whitney stood over on the horizon. I realized suddenly that our gaze was taking in the lowest and highest spots in the continental U. S. simultaneously.

Again, wildflowers were everywhere, and we became quite enchanted with one species that sported a plume of cheerful scarlet flowers. Subsequent investigation revealed the name of this plant to be “Indian Paintbrush.” Sadly, Home Depot does not stock these seeds.

We drove back down to Aguereberry’s mine, expecting to find more ruins. These we found, similar to but less elaborate than those at Skiddoo. There were more rusted remains of tools, and an ore-crusher built down the side of a hill in a similar fashion to the Skiddoo stamping mill.

What we didn't expect was to find that we were able to enter the mine itself. Generally these are fenced off and forbidden, but evidently this mine was judged to be safe to explore. There was a plaque at the entrance explaining that the mine served as a hibernation spot for some endangered species of bat, and that they did not take kindly to being disturbed.

The feeling was mutual, so I was glad it was almost Summer, and the little disease-carriers were out frolicking elsewhere. The plaque also warned against entering the mine without a good light-source. Fortunately, we had brought along a lantern, and so we went in to investigate: single-file, Nik in the front with the lantern, I in the back banging my head on the ceiling. “I hope no one here is claustrophobic,” Nik said cheerfully.

The tunnel branched off after a short distance, and at the fork rose a chute, evidently used to haul ore to the crusher directly above us. The air was cool and surprisingly fresh. We were able to go in about a tenth of a mile before the inevitable fence prohibited further progress. I had never seen the inside of a real mine before, and it was impressive to see how surgically Aguereberry had cut his passageway. It’s amazing what one man and some dynamite can do.

We then made our way around to Aguereberry’s little compound. This consisted of three buildings assembled around a fire ring. The center building had been the residence; to one side was a galley, to the other a supply shed. Again, it was fascinating to see how unmolested these buildings were. The galley still had its refrigerator and a full-size kitchen stove (made by Coleman, just like Nik’s camp stove) that ran on gasoline.

The residence was hell-architecture at its most assertive. How else could it have stood for so many years in this hellish place? It did have indoor plumbing after a fashion, but as there was also an outhouse out back, I assume the toilet was a later improvement. The wiring, all external, probably was also.

The most telling hell-feature was the presence of a number of mysterious wooden appurtenances nailed to the walls. I wonder if Aguereberry’s travels ever took him through Montrose? What a cool bachelor pad the place must have been in its heyday.

With time now pressing, we made our way hastily around the rim of the valley to Scotty’s Castle, near the Nevada border.

Death Valley Scotty was a yarn-spinner and small-time con artist, just one of the many odd creatures an odd place like Death Valley naturally attracts. His one honest asset was an encyclopedic knowledge of Valley topography, which he used to spin a convincing tale of a “secret gold mine,” the location of which was known among the living only to him. This story managed to hook a big fish from the Midwest: Albert Johnson, an insurance tycoon looking for a good speculative investment.

Johnson was no fool, and he soon spotted Scotty for the charismatic huckster he was. He and his wife were nonetheless quite charmed by Scotty, and the three soon became fast friends. The Johnsons were also charmed by the Valley itself, and decided to build a vacation home there.

Scotty found them a prime location in Grapevine Canyon, which among other attributes contained a spring providing ample water for the elaborate compound they quickly began to construct, a compound complete with a power-generating water wheel, huge solar water heater, and even a clock tower.

Eager to avoid the scrutiny of a public naturally curious to see such a prodigious effort underway in this remote location, they used their friend Scotty as an able front man, encouraging him to represent himself as the owner of the spread. Scotty had finally found how to make an honest living out of dishonesty.

Mrs. Johnson was a devout Christian of a Protestant evangelical sect, and when the Depression hit, the Johnsons ceased construction, by then only about 85 per cent complete, in order to use their funds to help the needy.

The three of them lived out the rest of their days in this unfinished oasis, which when they passed was bequeathed to their church. This church conducted tours of the estate to raise money for their missionary efforts for over twenty years, finally cashing out to the National Park Service in 1970.

While it was fascinating to see how ingeniously Johnson’s architects had met the challenge of building a palatial estate in such a hostile environment, I found myself becoming increasingly saddened by the significant deterioration the Feds had obviously allowed to occur.

By then evening was approaching, and we decided to brave a return to the valley floor. It was still devilishly hot, however; despite the best efforts of the Tracker’s air conditioning, we could feel the temperature rise uncomfortably as we descended. Lydia, quick on her feet as always, suggested we take refuge for a while in the air-conditioned comfort of the saloon we had seen that morning.

At this point in my story I am reminded of a line from the John Wayne film Angel and the Badman: a doctor, ruminating on the inherent limitations of the physician’s craft, says to the Duke: “It’s amazing, the varied uses to which men put alcohol. To each different individual, it’s either a stimulant, a depressant or an anodyne. Just now, I’m using it as an anodyne.”

Just then, we four were in grave need of an anodyne ourselves. Nik and Jo had gone to great lengths to ensure us of an enjoyable stay in the Valley, and while they had been enormously successful at this, still we were hard pressed so to convince them. After all, Death Valley is widely known as one of the harshest environments on Earth, and a weekend of exposure to it had rather blunted our social skills.

Even Nik and Jo, experienced Valley-dwellers as they were, had felt the effects of what Nik called afterwards “the hottest weather I have ever experienced.” A round of frosty Margaritas, silly but festive, was under these conditions exactly what the doctor ordered.

Our spirits (if not our bodies) restored, we chatted amiably while munching the complimentary popcorn and watching the Dodgers drop another one to the Phillies. At last Lydia and I were able to show our gracious hosts that we were indeed enjoying the Death Valley experience.

After yet another fabulous dinner, as we relaxed in the relative cool of the evening, Lydia remarked: “You know, I feel like heck, but I feel great.” I felt this to be a remarkably apt description of the camping experience in general.

Dawn came especially early and hot, and we quickly struck camp so that we could skedaddle before our brains shut down entirely from the heat. After bidding farewell to Nik and Jo, we departed.

Unwilling to face another Brobdingnagian traffic jam, we left Interstate 15 at the first Barstow exit in order to pick up old U. S. 66. This turned out to be fortunate timing on our part, for as we looked back at the freeway we had just left, we saw cars at a standstill approaching the junction with I-40. There but for the grace of God… .

We stopped at the Barstow Bun Boy for a delicious repast, then continued along old Route 66 through Victorville, eventually joining up with the Pearblossom Highway. We had originally planned to take Angeles Forest Highway, but on a whim I turned early and headed almost straight up the mountain to Big Pines, in the heart of the Angeles National Forest.

Up there in the cool fragrant mountain air, surrounded by tall pine trees, our spirits soared. Now that the ski runs had closed for the season, we had the place to ourselves. Under the command of yet another whim, we parked the car and took a walk among the trees.

We realized that, fascinating as Death Valley was, it was here in the forest that we felt truly elevated. Invigorated, we returned to the car and followed Angeles Crest Highway down into the smoke and haze of civilization.

The first thing an Angeleno does upon returning to the city is turn on the radio to catch the traffic report. It is a time-honored rite of re-entry. The big news was a miles-long traffic jam on the south I-15 stretching from the I-40 junction to San Bernardino. It’s so nice to go trav’ling, but it’s oh so nice to come home.

Looking back on the experience, it occurs to me how lucky we are to live in California. I have lived here all my life, and still the state continues to surprise and delight me with its seemingly endless scenic variety. Within striking distance, we have inviting beaches, rugged mountains, fertile farmland, and—Death Valley.

Surely Death Valley is unlike any other place on Earth. There one may see Mother Nature at her least accommodating. Parts of it are not just uninhabitable, but positively malevolent: one way or another, it is always trying to kill you.

And yet, I find myself oddly attracted to the place: if you can survive it, it rewards you by expanding your understanding of what is beautiful. My mind keeps returning to the image of the beautiful little poppy poking defiantly out of the gray earth. It seems Lydia saw immediately what occurs to me only now: even when life seems quite barren, still there is hope that good may spring forth.

But let’s not forget about the malevolence. Camping in Death Valley is not for the faint of heart, which is why I’m glad Lydia and I had Nik and Jo with us. Not only are they able campers, but good companions as well, with a gracious sense of humor that helped us take the full force of Death Valley’s assault in stride. We look forward to camping with them again—but next time, in some more habitable spot, preferably with trees and grass and perhaps a nice stream.

As for Death Valley, I am sure we will return for further exploration, but next time we’ll stay at the Furnace Creek Inn.

* * *

Postscript: At the end of scheduled play, the Angels and Dodgers had identical 78-66 records in the strike-shortened 1995 season. That won the Dodgers their division; they went on to meet Cincinnati in the National League Divisional Series, which they lost, 0-3. 

The Angels found themselves tied with Seattle for first place, and had to play them the next day in an elimination game, which the Angels lost. 

Nik still has the Tracker, and that swell telescope.

"But we won it all in 2002."