Day Thirty Two: And I Wanna Sleep With You in the Desert Tonight With a Billion Stars All Around: California (Death Valley)

(Events of Thursday April 16th, blogged on Monday April 20th)

The morning rose gorgeous and I wasn’t freezing when I took Annie for her AM constitutional for a change. Heaven. I had a leisurely (healthy) breakfast, chatted with the folks in the RV next door who were traveling with an adorable Mini Australian Shepard named Chaco after a nearby park, and even rearranged my “pantry” area. Word on the street was that the shower facilities were FIVE dollars and a big pain in the butt to access, so I decided to hold off on any grooming rituals for the time being. This would turn out to be a regrettable decision.

Annie and Marigold and I set off exploring, and the first thing we discovered is that everything in Death Valley is an exceedingly long ass ways away from everything else. Like, you think you have a handle on how far it is, but then double that.

Our first stop was the Harmony Borax Works. Borax, as you may or may not know, is a mineral found in dry salt lake beds and used in detergents and in fiberglass, and in making things fire-retardant, and a whole host of other stuff. It was discovered here in 1881 and the resultant efforts to mine and process it is sort of what put Death Valley on the map, and brought in the first non Native settlers.

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Getting it out of the desert was a pain and a half (I’ve mentioned the long-ass distances, yes?) and was best done using a Twenty Mule Team Wagon (which would be more accurately called a Twentyish Mule Team Wagon due to fuzzy math, and was really more like plus or minus 5 from that number, and even if the number did land at twenty, that figure included two horses as well). The wagon wheels were seven feet high, they cold carry up to ten tons, and they traveled 165 miles across the baking desert (temperatures at Death Valley can reach 139 F or 59C in the summers). Good times.

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The labor was primarily performed by Chinese immigrants and local Native Americans who lived in tents or basic structures here. They made like $1.60 a day and had to pay for room and board out of that. Good times.

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My next stop (35 miles down the road) was Scotty’s Castle. I don’t even know where to begin with this one. So Scotty was actually William Scott, a dude who used to perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and a bonafide original flim flam man. He got ahold of some gold nuggets from a mine in Colorado, and high tailed it off to New York City where he started telling investors he had struck gold in a new mine in Death Valley and just needed some grubstaking to get it out. He suckered many a wealthy man with this line, one of whom was named Albert Johnson. At one point, Albert came to California from his home in Chicago to see the operation for himself. Now Albert had previously broken his back in three different places after he was one of only two survivors of a gruesome trainwreck. So Scotty (as he was known) told Albert the mine was a 60 mile mule ride away. Albert was game. Scotty then arranged for some “bandits” to attack them en route but his brother ended up getting shot instead. Albert finally learned that the whole thing was a massive con, but was so enchanted with Scotty and his wild adventures that the two became best buds. He ended up building a Two Million Dollar (In 1930s money) castle in the middle of godforsaken nowhere which he lived in for exactly one month of the year, and let Scotty pass off as his own the rest of the time.

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So I learned most of this fascinating history from my time period appropriate tour guide/ranger, Keith. Keith hails from a little town I like to call… ROUND FRICKING HILL VIRGINIA!! Yeah, he grew up about a mile from my house. Keith was an amazingly knowledgeable guide and funny and entertaining, and before Toni gets any ideas he called me Ma’am pretty much incessantly, so I think that’s a no go.

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The castle is a marvel, from the intricately carved redwood beams in the celling to the Spanish tiles hand laid in the kitchen.

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The legend over Scotty’s personal nook in the dining room (and by the way, the custom plates had both SCotty and Albert’s initials) reads ‘Oh what a story!”

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Even the weathervane has an image of Scotty and his mining mule on it!

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The music room had this ENORMOUS organ speaker thing (that whole wall on the right photo is the speakers) which sent anything that was played resounding through the desert.

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Albert’s 1914 Packard survived the scarp metal drives of both world wars, and is one of only four left in the world!

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I could go on about Scotty and Albert all day, but there’s a lot more to get to!

After stropping by the Ubehebe Volcanic Crater (which the local Shoshone believed was Coyote’s Basket from which all the people of the world emerged)…

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we drove and drove and drove through the sands…

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… until we got to Twenty Mule Canyon Road, where Annie and I enjoyed a three mile hike at the hottest time of day!

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We took plenty of rest breaks… and then walked some more…

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The last mile was along the highway which was less fun, and it took forever to see Marigold in the distance.

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After some recovery time, we drove (and drove and drove) to Zabriskie Point which is a great lookout spot… if you don’t go late in the afternioon when the sun is low in the sky…

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And along Artist’s Drive which is known for it’s gorgeous rock colors… which do not photograph well at all late in the afternoon…

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Next on the Must Visit list was Badwater Basin- at 282 feet BELOW Sea Level the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere. The area is named for a small pool of salty water, that an early settler, upon noticing that his mule refused to drink from it, deemed “bad water” in his journal. The pool is surrounded by glowing white salt flats that you can walk along, and yes, lick if ye be so bold. (This was another “No Dogs” area, but sometimes you just gotta say what the “heck”.

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If you can enlarge this picture, about halfway up the cliff is a little sign marking sea level.

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The place was gorgeous in the evening light, and I would have loved to linger, but I was already exhausted from overdoing it and still had one more item to check off the to do list.

Having been so enthralled by the stars the previous night, I had seen a Star Walk on the salt flats (not these, no, on some about 50 miles away from these) led by a ranger which I thought would allow me to see even more. And it did. Except that approximately 857 children showed up for this walk, and they enjoyed waving their flashlights around to screw up everyone’s night vision and constantly interrupting the ranger and talking over him. I don’t know how he kept his patience. But Ranger Jonathan was an earnest young man, not a tired and cranky old woman. He was the kind of lad who once drove all the way from Auburn Alabama to Jacksonville Florida because it was the closest place he could get a Slurpee. The stars were brilliant and I did learn some stuff, but it was a long 20 mile slog back to a collapse in the campground.

Day Thirty One: Goin’ Back to Cali : Nevada, California

(Events of Wednesday, April 15th, transcribed Sunday, April 19th)

We slept well at the North Shore Inn, and were able to use the morning to take care of chores: blogging (not really a chore), laundry, and recharging all the electricals. The wind had died down a fair bit, and (this second part of the sentence is entirely unrelated to the first part) upon spotting an auto repair shop next door, I decided to stop in and see if the mystery of the blown refrigerator fuse could be solved. It was Cal’s Repair Center, and I was lucky enough to be assisted by the man himself. Eagle-eyed Cal immediately spotted that the two repair dudes who had helped me at Zion had not only left their wrench under my hood, but they had also left off the cover to my fuse box and set it in an area where it got mangled. Cal was not amused. Cal located the blown fuse and shook his head, this was not going to be easy. He was going to have to head down to the parts store a mile away. While he was gone, his twenty-something assistant (whose name, if I knew it, I’ve forgotten) started chatting me up (not like that). He was well impressed with the looks of Marigold, and more so when I told him what Annie and I were up to. He immediately invited me to come to his place for a hot meal (along with his girlfriend and 3 year old daughter, and a random assortment of other hangers on.) It was exceedingly nice seeing as I’d known him all of four minutes, and I wasn’t surprised to learn he was originally from Kentucky, as the gas station attendant I met in Kentucky was one of the nicest, most genuine folks I’ve come across in a month filled with surprising generosity and acts of kindness. Cal returned and. alas, the fuse was too obscure for the likes of NAPA, so off he went to do some online research, and  finally offered to order one from Camping World, but I’d need to stay in town a day or two. As time was not permitting of that, he gave me directions to another location as I headed west (I never found it and the refrigerator continues to be an overpriced drawer). THEN, all on his own, he goes to get a hairdryer to help reshape my fuse box lid into its proper shape. While he’s doing that, a crusty old timer (a category Cal falls into as well) ambles over to regale me with stories of flying his prop plane into the Grand Canyon, and a B52 that supposedly lays at the bottom of Lake Mead. Enjoying the company of these fine gentlemen, and having a rare moment of automotive responsibility, I ask Cal if he can check my oil while he’s at it. And of course he does, and it turns out I’m only a quart low, so he tops me off, and I ask what I owe him for the good thirty minutes he and his “team” have spent helping me, and the only charge I receive is $4.94 for the oil. That’s it! That’s the list! I don’t think he even added on tax! So if you’re ever in the Overton Nevada area I cannot recommend more highly Cal’s Repair Station. The most honest mechanics since Click and the late lamented Clack.

Caught up in this fever of industriousness I even got another futile car wash in an attempt to fight the onslaught of bug corpses on my front windshield. All our tasks completed, it was back into Marigold for yet more miles across the barren desert.

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But wait, what’s this rising up out of the vast wasteland?

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Las Vegas! Sin City! The Gambling Capital of the World! But seeing as Annie doesn’t gamble, and I’m not in the mood for sinning, we drive right on by without stopping.

I could tell you that the main reason we’re not stopping is that I’ve made a pledge to myself that this trip be entirely new experiences, and no revisits to places I’ve already been. And this would be true. And it would explain why I’ve not stopped at beautiful and enchanting towns like New Orleans, or Asheville NC, or Charleston, or the Natchez Trace. But I’m also only  about twenty minutes from throwing that pledge out the window. Because soon Marigold is driving past a sign I drove past  fourteen months, almost to the day, prior.

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Red Rock Canyon. Which I visited in February of 2014 with my best friend from high school, Mary V, who has admitted she barely reads the blog and thus may never see this shout out 😉 In any event, it was there that I had perhaps the latest, and one of the most significant, moments that was the genesis of this grand adventure. When we went out to hike the canyon that day, it was a gorgeous sunshiny spring afternoon. And at the first stop we came to, I saw several people walking with their dogs. And their dogs happily clambering over the rock formations and sniffing all the desert flowers. And I thought how much Annie would enjoy it there, and how cool it would be for her to see other landscapes and smell other smells, and experience walks that were totally different than the walks she is so accustomed to at home. And I missed her and felt a little sad that I was having such a fun experience without her. And I think the wheels first started turning then about all the places she might enjoy exploring, and how I could make that happen. So I wanted to stop by and make that old dream a reality and commemorate the (somewhat) start of it all. But as Thomas Wolfe said… “You can’t go home again.”

It started with an abrupt traffic slow down thanks to a caravan of whatever the hell these are stretching along the road. Yes, they look cool, but you don’t want to be behind a fleet of them.

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Red Rock Canyon is a one direction loop road, with stops at various trail heads and overlooks. So if you’re an idiot and don’t realize Stop One is where the magic happened until you’re halfway to Stop Two, you have to drive alllllll the way around the thirteen mile drive at 35 mph if you’re lucky because you’re still behind the clown cars, before you can try again. And if you decide to stop somewhere else along the way it will be REALLY cold and REALLY windy and turn out to be a REALLY long walk along boring stuff before you can get the cute dog photo that truth be told is probably the only reason you’re still carrying on with it at this point.

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And FINALLY you make it back to the cool rock formations, but it’s lateish and you’re tired, and the weather is REALLY unpleasant, and so after all the time and effort and romanticizing it took to get here, you’re back in the car within 15 minutes, and as soon as you drive the loop AGAIN, will be out of here.

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And after some more hours of driving, and finally starting to see some palm trees, we roll through a little town with the unfortunate name of Pahrump, Nevada and make a pit stop at a mini-mart that sells canned Bud Light & Clamato which MAY be the vilest sounding thing I have espied today, but may get you in the right frame of mind to plop down at a slot machine in a convenience store. Who needs Vegas?

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Side Note: Pretty much every town with more than four streets that I’ve been through since hitting the desert has an Anasazi Road. The dirt mountains get taller for a bit, then flatten out again into dusty flat scrub as we cross over into California with little fanfare. The sun gets low and hazy. Suddenly, the ground between the grass clumps turns white. It’s kind of eerie even once I realize it’s probably salt flats, which must mean we are almost in Death Valley.

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And soon we are in our campground, and it is warm and lovely, and I can see but not photograph the sun setting over distant mountains, and once the sun sets more stars than I may have ever seen in life come out and twinkle in a jet black sky and I fall a little bit in love with this place.

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