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Home / United States / California / Death Valley / Travel Tales /
Down in the Valley
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Down in the Valley
  Death Valley Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

The first time we went to Death Valley we didn't get very far. The steep road frightened me, so, we turned around. Now, upon reflection, I think it was Death Valley and not the road that frightened me. Frightened and mystified me all at once. Did anyone live there, I wondered? And somewhere in the back of my head was a frantic galloping dust-stirring mule train.

A sign saying "To Scotty's Castle" finally broke the fear. What was a castle doing down in Death Valley, anyway? A short time later we found out.

" Scotty's Castle" is impressive -- notwithstanding it is sitting isolated on the rim of a desolate, desperately hot, dessert valley. It wasn't built with ordinary brick and mortar. Every piece of material was imported or custom made, right down to the door handles and hinges. The music room alone cost one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

The guide told us about Walter Scott " Scotty," a colorful character out of Death Valley's 1920's -- a con man and a dubious prospector. Rumor was the castle going up at the north end of Death Valley was his. He boasted of having a gold mine; could it be true? Probably not, but the castle did exist. His shack, he would call it.

Turned out just like everyone suspected. It belonged to his friend Albert M. Johnson. Not wanting the limelight ( just a winter retreat for himself and Mrs. Johnson ), Mr. Johnson didn't object to Scotty's flamboyant charade. Naturally, everyone wanted to get a look at this red-tiled curiosity that reportedly cost 2 1/2 million dollars. (Back then, that was a lot of money. ) In fact, so many people came that Mrs. Johnson began conducting tours and charging a fee.

In 1970 the US government bought the castle. Today, tours are still being conducted and a fee is still being charged.

Further down in the valley, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, we ran into another surprise, a huge resort with campground, cabins, golf course, tennis courts, horseback riding, swimming pool and a light aircraft landing strip. Who would have thought all this was here? Not I. I expected a barren valley ( maybe a rundown mule depot ). I expected a deep hole in the ground. I was right about the deep hole, but barren? Not on your life.

Death Valley's landscape is phenomenal -- a strange mixture of time and substance, from rippling stone flats that disappear into the horizon to mesmerizing rolling hills of sand to sculptured salty pinnacles to painters' palette mountains.

In his book called " Death Valley and the Creek Called Furnace," Edwin Corle compares Death Valley's landscape to New York's exploding and subsequently coming together. Except now a high-rise is comprised of "Macy's basement, Cafe Society, Childs Restaurant, the Yale Club, and Mills Hotel, topped off by the penthouse of the Sherry-Netherland holding the Statue of Liberty's torch.".

This is Death Valley -- the pieces fit like a jigsaw puzzle, but the picture doesn't make sense. According to G.K. Gilbert, a geologist who worked in the area in the 1870's, the reason is that the rock layers that form the mountains are very ancient but only in recent geologic time have they risen.

Awed and fascinated we explored startling Death Valley. Highways, vista points, gravel roads, one-way drives, and hiking trails crisscrossing the valley, took us through and to the strange -- a few almost moon-like -- landscapes.

From Zabriskie's Point we saw the Golden Canyon shimmer and shine in the morning and evening sun. From Dante's View we saw a sea of salt and the obtrusive and foreboding Panamint Range.

On Artist's Drive the painted rocky faces dazzled us with a kaleidoscope of natural colors. We walked, our feet making a crunching sound, on the salty flats at Badwater. ( 282 feet below sea level.)

We drove the length of Titus Canyon, a one way drive through narrow dips and precarious ledges past rock formations of such magnificent color and design, they took my breath away.

At the mouth of the canyon, the walls narrowed. We were driving our 4-wheel pickup with a drop-in camper and the road said no trailers or buses. Oh no! We barely squeezed through. Whew!

Scattered throughout the valley are bits and pieces of discarded mines, old ghost towns and charcoal kilns--evidence of man's constant dream to strike it rich. However, the first people of European descent in Death Valley got there by accident. They were looking for a short cut to the gold on the coast of California. The immigrants were part of a wagon train now dubbed "The Jayhawkers Trail of 1849." Only one wagon of the 37 ever made it out of the valley. A survivor of the group turned upon leaving and said " Good-bye Death Valley." The name stuck.

Were they courageous men? Perhaps, but not for the right reasons according to Edwin Corle. He describes the disbanded portion of the Sand Walking Company that found itself in Death Valley.

" [ ] Romantic history likes to record the trail-blazing Argonaut as a strong, upright idealist, fighting his way west, conquering the raw terrain, and singing a song of civilization. Somehow the idea has got about that this noble stock was meeting hardship and loving it. Carrying democracy into the wilderness, winning the West, and building a great empire for posterity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The emigrants didn't even use good sense. They were suspicious of each other from the start. They built up walls of egoism around their families or groups. They quarreled among themselves, and they even stole from each other . . . Nobody wanted to bother with anyone else. There was gold in California. Get yours. Quick." Courageous perhaps, but only out of greed.

Eventually gold seekers did come to Death Valley looking for gold; and eventually a bit of the elusive stuff was found. Mines were dug, charcoal kilns set up and temporary towns hurriedly erected. ( Seven hundred residents once hung their hats in Skidoo. ) However, it was the discovery of Borax, the multi-use dust ignored by the gold seekers that brought Death Valley prosperity and fame.

The first plant in active production was Harmony Works. Constructed in 1883, it still sits in its original location a short distance the visitor center. From there 20-mule teams laboriously hauled the mineral out of the valley to the terminal in Mojave 165 miles away. The return trip took about 30 days. The plant was sold in 1888 to a firm that later called itself US Borax. US Borax sponsored a television show called " Death Valley Days."

It was all coming back to me, the opening of the show and the romantic and wild dashing of the mules.

I made myself comfortable on the edge of their well-beaten path and shut my eyes tight. I swear, I could hear their galloping hoofs. In fact, the dust they stirred up tickled my nose. That's scary.

For more information on Death Valley write Death Valley National Monument, Superintendent, Death Valley, 92328.




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