The mountainous track went one-way only, straight up 8,500 feet, with no room to turn around or turn off. If we didn't plunge over the edge first, we were going to be ambushed at the top, I just knew it.
"We're going to die, aren't we?" I wailed. Our underpowered rental car was struggling behind a stranger's pickup as it led us up a steep, dust-clogged path along the brink of California's Inyo Mountains. That's when it struck me that our quixotic way-off-season vacation could end here very badly.
We hadn't acted a bit like our usual skeptical selves getting into this predicament. A denim-clad man in a battered, green pickup had pulled up to the roadside historical marker we'd stopped to read on California Route 136, about 100 miles west of Death Valley, and offered us a guided tour of Cerro Gordo since he was headed that direction anyway. We had paused only to consider if the rental could make the 7.5 miles up.
As it turned out, our car did make it, though that dirt road can wash out for a week at a time when it rains - and we made it out alive after a fascinating look around the ruins of a legendary mining town. Cerro Gordo - the Fat Hill that yielded $1.7 million in silver, lead and zinc to 19th century miners - turned out to be the crown jewel in our weeklong trip in and around Death Valley National Park, a part of the country flush with spectacular scenery, wacky history and colorful characters like Frank Purkart, the guy in the pickup, a retired aircraft mechanic from Chicago spending his retirement in a shack he's excavating in the mountain ghost town.
Timing is everything
Late fall and early winter are great times to visit the rock and salt pan vistas of the 3-million-acre national park, and while you'll likely encounter the same teasing incredulity we did from co-workers about such an unlikely sounding vacation destination, it is a trip worth making. Most visitors hit the park as a side trip in mid-summer, enroute to or just back from Yosemite or Las Vegas. That's really courting danger, not to mention discomfort.
Death Valley is one of the hottest places in the world - 1907 travel ads enticed tourists to see the closest thing to Hell on Earth - with July temperatures that routinely reach 115 and bake rocks to 200 degrees. Park rangers have studded the valley with tanks of water for overheated car radiators and with posters about the warning signs of dehydration; the National Park Service's Guide for the Visitor includes a section: "Surviving Death Valley," and the slide presentation at its Visitor Center instructs tourists to take precautions in the face of flash floods.
Traveling in November, we encountered, instead, pleasant temperatures that ranged from warm to sweater-chilly, no crowds and lower, off-season prices. Yosemite and other California mountain towns just a day's drive away might have been on our itinerary except their roadways were closed for the winter. One other small drawback: Sightseeing is pretty much over by 4:30 on fall afternoons, when the light starts failing. To see everything, you must rise early and plan on early lights out.
Glittery, man-made Las Vegas is the inappropriate entryway, at least for travelers from the East Coast, to the barren wilderness in and around Death Valley. We rented a car and drove 115 miles north to Beatty, Nev., which bills itself as the "Gateway to Death Valley."
With five modestly priced hotels, six RV parks, the comfort foods served at the Burro Inn Hotel & Casino and a just-opened one-hour photo-developing shop, Beatty isn't a bad launching pad into Hades. You can also stay at the palm-tree decorated Furnace Creek Ranch Resort or the ornate Furnace Creek Inn in an oasis at the heart of the park, but you'll pay three to six times as much. We opted to stay in Nevada, but couldn't resist driving immediately into the park at night.
Prying into Rhyolite
We didn't pay anything for the best parts of our Death Valley vacation, starting with the sight that first night of a full moon climbing up the black velvet crags of the Funeral Mountains and the spray of the Milky Way over the immense bowl of the valley.
We set out for the park from Beatty again the next morning, but got waylaid by an arrow pointing to Rhyolite. Visiting Death Valley, you'll quickly pick up enough information to make your old ninth-grade earth-science teacher proud: how erosion results the formation of alluvial fans, the chemical composition and manufacturing uses of borax and that rhyolite is a rock harboring gold.
Gold discovered in the rhyolite near Beatty in 1904 brought in as many as 10,000 people eager to cash in. By 1919, everyone had gone, leaving behind a train depot, school, 50 saloons, banks and stock brokerages, a jail, stores, residences and a ring of mine tailings and plumbed-out holes in the hills.
Tourists, especially photographers, are repeopling the old town today and gold mining continues, thanks to machinery that can accomplish what no prospector could: crushing mountains of rock around the clock to extract the minuscule portion of an ounce of gold found in each ton.
Glenn Boehringer showed us around Rhyolite. He walked up to us at the 1906 Bottle House as if out of the pages of a Louis Armour western novel, sporting denim clothes and a long, grizzled beard. He was a volunteer with the Bureau of Land Management, he told us, though he plainly didn't have much truck with government bureaucracies - he was a retired Coloradan living in a trailer near the ruins. He showed us around the weird house that 76-year-old Tom Kelly built in 1906 using 51,000 beer, whiskey and wine bottles because he didn't have any bricks. Kelly didn't even bother to wash out the bottles. Our guide steered us to one bottle full of mummified crickets, apparently lured to their death long ago by a sticky residue in one of Kelly's building-bottles.
The glass house has held its shape for nearly a century except for one wall where Kelly unadvisedly tried to reinforce his mud mortar with concrete. When it began to buckle, Boehringer told us, government engineers in Washington drew up blueprints for an elaborate brace and shipped them out west, where land management agents dutifully built a wood, concrete and bolted contraption that masks and overpowers the original simple bottle wall. Boehringer shook his head and chuckled after reciting that part of his tour.
Check out the Blonde Girl on your way out of town, he told us. He meant the nutty super-life-sized and anatomically correct Lego statue that rises out of the mountainside. The Girl is part of an eclectic sculpture collection displayed in the front yard of a private land-owner who has posted "No Trespassing" signs to discourage tourists and doesn't care a fig about the Bureau of Land Management's efforts to ensure historic Rhyolite be authentic and blend together.
In the park
We were forced to skip a visit to the ghost towns of Titus Canyon, recommended by people in Beatty and in the park, because rental cars cannot withstandd the rugged 26-mile drive. Only 4 by 4's with high clearance are advised to even try.
Inside Death Valley Park, however, we hiked through a ghost town of a different sort - The Harmony Borax Works, the late 1800s-era mining operation that gave birth to 20-mule teams. Here, unhappily, no guide popped out of nowhere to fill us in.
In the late 1920s, old-time prospectors led guided tours through the park in big Buick sedans. Nowadays, the National Park Service, in general, does a terrible job with its interpretive signs, pamphlets and slide shows, emphasizing all the dangers and the rules that must be obeyed, but skimping on historical details and facts.
So, while we knew not to feed coyotes and to stay out of abandoned mines, we had to hunt out information about why in the heck men would risk their lives to drag tons of dusty white powder 165 miles out of such an inconvenient place just to make soap.
It turns out that mostly, Americans got Chinese laborers to do the dirty work; that like us they figured out that winter was the best time to go into Death Valley, living in tents for the season, then getting out with the ponderous mule-pulled wagons; and that borax was a valuable industrial and commercial commodity, not just a cleanser, good for tempering glass, for adding flux in welding, for fertilizing and for killing bugs.
After Harmony came the low point of our trip - literally. Badwater, a puddle in the middle of the desert of Death Valley, is the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level. Water in the puddle isn't really poisonous, just filled with such an ill-tasting mix of chemicals it might as well be.
The pool is gorgeous, however, mirroring the clouds and the rocks that surround it. We did what all the other tourists did at Badwater - there may be a California state law requiring this - we broke out a bottle of Evian and took pictures of ourselves in front of the sign that announces: "Badwater Elevation -282."
From the western edge of the park, it was a straight shot 104 miles to Lone Pine, home of the Alabama Hills and Mount Whitney - the high point of our trip. At 14,496 feet, Mount Whitney is the highest point in the lower 48 states. Whitney and the Sierre Nevada range it towers over along with the Alabama Hills that tumble up to the big mountain seemed vaguely familiar, though we'd never visited it before. No wonder. Lone Pine and its unreal vistas have provided the backdrop for more than 250 movies as well as TV shows from "Bonanza" to "Kalifornia." The local motels provide guests with a typed list of all the shows, and local residents can dish out the dirt on stars from Mel Gibson to Michael Jordan.
Because of the closed roads into Yosemite and other California scenic sites, after a day and a half we headed back down Route 136 toward Nevada. Without a clear plan in mind, we spotted the historical marker that set in motion our trek to Cerro Gordo.
The town sprang up on a rocky ledge above the Joshua trees around 1867 on the strength of rumors. Mexicans who'd found silver in the fat hill had been chased off by Indians, but their recounting of the adventure in Las Vegas caught the attention of one M.W. Belshaw. He was the catalyst for the sinking of a 1,150-foot deep shaft into the hill, which would eventually produce 4.5 million ounces of riches before running out in 1980. The town around the shaft and smelter threw out railway and stagecoach tentacles and a hotel, general store, saloons and homes.
A scattering of those structures remain and are being restored by the private owners of the town, Jody Stewart, a former Los Angeles real estate agent, and her builder husband, Mike. Stewart acquired her very own ghost town, Purkart told us, through a complex family connection. The couple has restored the biggest home in the town with repairs, antiques and careful decorating to its former glory. From that headquarters, they are restoring other buildings and shrewdly promoting their ghost town as a cool place to visit. Their promotions include Halloween time "ghost rides! Join us for a nostalgic horseback adventure back to the era of bullion kings, desert freighters, entrepreneurs and outlaws ..." They also rent out the six bedrooms in a restored 1904 bunkhouse to nature and photography groups by selling Cerro Gordo's remoteness, peace and quiet and ghost tales. In one bunkhouse room, supposedly, a ghost will rearrange any cosmetics left on the dresser.
The town hardly needs hype. In the general store, we picked through old mining equipment and grave markers. We looked at old photos of men with pickaxes and their women in the assay office, fingered tiny bottles with Chinese lettering that once held opium and marveled at bullet holes in the Belshaw House and in an old safe that hint at the town's former rowdiness. Purkart poses by the old brothel, a building soon to be restored with
donations from some interested divorce lawyers.
On our return trip, the way down was much better than the fearful ride up. We stopped frequently, partly to give the straining brakes on the rental car a breather, mostly to gasp at wondrous views of the Sierra Nevadas and the Owens Valley far below.
All in all, we agreed, we'd had a vacation to die for.
AN IDEAL DAY
7 a.m.: Wake up at first light so you can cram in as much as possible before the sun sets. There are no neon lights in this vacation wonderland. Grab camera and hiking shoes on the way out.
8 a.m.: Chow down at the Burro Inn on a bigger-than-you'd-ever-eat-at-home breakfast of eggs, hash browns, bacon and toast because you know you'll walk and climb it off and you don't want to stop to fuel up again until late. Throw a few quarters in a slot machine on the way out just to see what happens.
8:45 a.m.: Get on the road from Beatty, Nev., into Death Valley National Park; go past the gold mine and the ghost towns and into the park itself. Turn right, left or go straight and you'll find surprises. Shifting light and clouds make the same scenery look vastly different even on repeat stops.
10 a.m.: Stop at the Harmony Borax Works and walk through and around the desolate area, wondering what the heck borax is and what a 20-mule-team must have smelled like.
10:30 a.m.: Stop at gift store in Furnace Creek Ranch Resort, walk past all the Death Valley trinkets and load up instead on water, Diet Coke and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. It's a wasteland out there.
11:45 a.m.: Drive along winding hot road to Artist's Palette. Climb through it shooting rolls of film in search of just the right mix of color and jagged rock line. Put the camera down when you get high up, though, to really take in this spectacle.
2 p.m.: Drive up to Dante's Point and grab a jacket from the back seat before you get out of the car. The difference in temperature from the hot desert floor is shocking. As everywhere in the park, the best thing to do is - just look.
3:30 p.m.: Take tourist pictures at the Mushroom Rock. It's giant and it does look like a mushroom. Pretend you are Alice in Wonderland after she's gotten small.
4:30 p.m.: Hike the sand dunes. From the road, the dunes don't look as far away or as tall as they really are. But you can't stop once you've begun, so you take off your shoes and keep on marching. It's hot, you're sweaty, but you are going to greet the sunset at the top of the highest mound of sand. And you do. Watch the sun go down and the color of the sand and sky change from gold to pink to brown to black. Then, in the dark, with the sand eerily cold now on your feet, you walk all the way back.
6:30 p.m.: You make it to the car back at the side of the road just in time to see a bold coyote walking right up the road in search of food from other tourists.
8 p.m.: Back at the Burro Inn, you order another impossibly big meal, play the slots again with the same rotten luck and look for a bed to crash on.
WHEN YOU GO...
Getting there: All the major airlines fly from BWI to Las Vegas. From there, you'll need a car for the 2 1/2 hour drive to Death Valley.
* For the road trip from Las Vegas to Death Valley, pack water and fruit to make for the most pleasant trip.
* Once in the park, keep packing the water; also take along hiking boots and tuck away a jacket for when the sun goes down.
* Photographers will get amazing shots in this place almost without trying, but the lens we used the most was a 35-70 telephoto zoom.
* The Artist's Drive to the Artist's Palette - A jumbled rock pile smudged red, orange, yellow, green and the burnt sierra color usually seen only in crayons depending on how and where the sun strikes it at any given moment. Your earth-science teacher could fill you in on the decomposing mica and iron, copper and other minerals in the eroding hillside causing the spectacle. Our advice: do an Ansel Adams instead. Pull up a rock and just watch for an hour.
* The Golden Canyon near Zabrickie Point - Imagine a wrinkled stone tarp flung over acres of mountain. The sun on the formation runs up and down the tarp's ridges and ruts, creating shadows and glares so that stone looks like canvas flapping in the breeze. Pictures don't do this odd landscape justice.
* Ubehebe Crater - A dramatic, 550-foot-deep hole in the ground blasted out by a volcano 1,000 years ago. Walk around its 2,400-foot diameter to best see the moon-like terrain and fern and holly-like plants that have broken through.
* The Sand Dunes - A 2-mile sunset tramp through this giant sand pile was an unexpected highlight of our visit. The eerie dunes have been whittled by wind, dimpled by hundreds of footprints and pocked by wiry bushes that manage to survive on the little rain which falls and collects in deep sand pockets. If you like the beach, you'll love this part of the desert.
* El Portal Motel in Beatty, 702-553-2912 (room rates range from $30 to $60).
* Furnace Creek Inn, 760-786-2361 (room rates range from $145 to $200).
* Furnace Creek Ranch, 760-786-2345 (room rates range from $90 to $130).
Dining: Burro Inn Hotel & Casino, 800-843-2078.
High point: At 14,496 feet, nearby Mount Whitney is the highest point in the lower 48 states.
Low point: Badwater, a puddle in the middle of the desert of Death Valley, is the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level.
Famous connections: The scenery at nearby Lone Pine has been the backdrop for more than 250 movies as well as TV shows from "Bonanza" to "Kalifornia." The local motels provide guests with a typed list of all the shows, and local residents can talk about stars from Mel Gibson to Michael Jordan.
Tours: Available 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. in the park of Scotty's Castle (also known as the Death Valley Ranch) 760-786-2392.
Information: For maps, details and other ideas about the area, contact Death Valley Natural History Association, P.O. Box 188, Death Valley, Calif. 92328 (760-786-3285); and the Beatty (Nev.) Chamber of Commerce, 119 Main Street, P.O. Box 956, Beatty, Nev. 89003 (702-553-2424).
Once you're there, visit the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and Museum (760-786-2331) for information, including books, maps, lectures and a museum.
! Pub date: 5/31/98