Exploring the Death Valley Area
West Side of Death Valley
by Curtis A. Von Fange
Heat radiated from the road and made those little squiggles on the horizon. It reminded me of scenes in old western movies where the hero is crossing an endless desert expanse with an empty canteen and a Winchester rifle. My desert scene, though, was one of an asphalt stripe anchored at my feet and stretched like a bungee cord to the base of a distant mountain range. Yellow lines, almost an afterthought by some tortured painter, followed obediently to oblivion.
Off to my left the dry salt flat called Owens Lake spread out like a white china pie plate floating in a sea of brown sand. The January air was cool and crisp with a mixed aroma of sage and salt. Overhead the cloudless canopy of deep, dark blue housed the brilliant spot of light which gave warmth to my face. There were no cars, no voices, no noise other than the sound of an invisible northerly wind blowing on my face.
Reggie and I had come to the area on a short vacation from the winter in Indiana. The desert climate and quiet expanse of the open range attracted me the first time I experienced it a couple of decades earlier. This visit during the winter months would be quite a contrast from the furnace heat of summer. I wanted to savor every moment of quiet splendor.
On the far side of the lake was the old mining town of Keeler. It was a major transport center for the silver mines working the mountains just east of town at the end of the last century. Back in the 1800s, the lake contained enough water to transport the silver ore by boat to the far western shore for repackaging and further shipment to the larger cities across the Sierras.
Now, Keeler was a time capsule of old buildings and rusting machinery. Antique car bodies occupied driveways with no houses and dilapidated frame buildings dotted the landscape. Here and there were renovated homes with an occasional occupant, but for the most part, the empty town was a monument to the people who scratched out a living in such a harsh environment.
As we got back on the main highway to Death Valley, Reggie noticed something glittering in the not-too-distant hills. Many of the treasures of history are not necessarily wrapped up in old towns and historic sites. In this case, history was found in a rubbish heap. The sun was reflecting off broken bottles and glass chips. We parked the car along the road and hiked a little way into the hills. As we expected, piles of tin cans, rubbish and broken bottles littered the landscape. As we walked along, Reg explained a little about the glass shards he was picking up.
Apparently, one way to tell the age of a bottle is by the thickness of its bottom and the color tinge of the glass. Blue bottle shards -- so colored because the glass used in the manufacturing process contains lead -- are really old. The bottom of the older bottles were also thickly glassed. Whenever Reg would find a thick shard, he put it in his pocket until he had quite the collection. He wouldn't tell me why he was collecting them; but I found out later. I discovered some pieces of china plate that he assembled like a jigsaw puzzle to make a whole, along with some small medicine bottles and other paraphernalia. (There is no collecting allowed within Death Valley National Park.)
As we returned to the car, we stumbled upon an old graveyard. A wooden picket fence surrounded a sandblasted wooden tombstone. It was the only indication of a burial plot. After careful inspection of the site, we noticed a pile of stones here or a weathered stone marker there, that peeked out from the sagebrush. As I looked at the blank tombstone, I wondered about the occupant and the cause of his death: a mine accident, succumbing to the elements, disease, or, perhaps, a gunfight. It seemed like such a lonely place to have permanent residence: a hillside in the desert overlooking the vast expanse of a dried up salt lake.
The road from Keeler to Death Valley is a scenic wonder. A series of small mountain ranges, with their corresponding valleys, stand like a row of frozen ocean swells stretching to the horizon. The two-lane highway gradually ascends to the first pass and reveals a panoramic expanse overlooking a wide valley. In the far distance, the ribbon of highway can be seen snaking up the next range. We started toward the massive basin and descended precariously down the flank of the mountainside.
Deep valleys carved by millennia of torrential downpours forced the highway to switch back on itself in order to make the grade. Steep cliffs of naked rock stood guard like rows of soldiers over a hostile territory and permitted only the narrowest of blacktop to pass. The road wound further and further into the abyss when, finally, it exited a steep, narrow canyon and popped onto an alluvial fan leading directly to the valley floor.
Even though it was straight again, taking a bullet's path to the next shadow of ridges in the distance, we were still descending. Up ahead, the characteristic salt flat of a dried up lake betrayed the lowest part of valley. We watched as the sagebrush thinned out until there was nothing but a white patch of salt where a lake once stood. Then it was time to go uphill again. We traveled up the other side of the basin until the massive mountain walls seemingly blocked our way. The road sneaked around a corner and entered a hidden canyon as it continued its ever increasing climb to the top.
Every few miles a huge water container sat along side the road to provide a temporary cure for an overheated engine. As the car crawled along, the canyon walls, once again, got deeper and deeper, forcing the road to switch back and climb even steeper to get to the pass. Massive cliffs jutted overhead and made us wonder about rock falls and landslides.
Finally, the road saddled out at the top of another pass. Behind us the large valley bowled up to the mountain range we had just climbed. The massive Sierra Nevadas pinnacled like an impassable wall on the horizon. I looked toward Death Valley and saw in the distance another mountain ridge; the long valley with a salt flat at the bottom seemed to snicker at the hopelessness of a traverse.
Valley after valley lay before us, each one deeper and deeper, each mountain range higher and higher. It is no wonder that the first travelers of this hot, barren and forbidding land gave the surrounding landscape such dismal names as Furnace Creek or the Funeral Mountains. Devastation, barrenness and emptiness seemed to pervade all aspects of the country. But therein lies the beauty. Alongside the road we stopped to photograph a lone flower, a symbol of the struggle between desolation and tenacious life.
The mountains behind Stovepipe Wells, the first outpost on the west side of Death Valley, are carved with deep canyons that look like huge clefts made by a celestial hatchet. Over the passage of time, mountainous volumes of accumulated aggregate called alluvial fans were deposited at the entrances to these canyons. This residual collection of material can be thousands of feet thick and can extend from the mountain base all the way to the bottom of the valley. A gravel road snaked up one of these fans at a steady grade until it reached the mouth of the canyon where a small parking lot was scraped out of the debris. A small trail followed the dried creek bed into the mouth of a giant cleft.
Almost immediately, the walls rose on each side to dizzying heights. They closed in making the pathway, the creek bottom, only a few feet wide. The rock walls, polished from water-born debris, looked like the marble halls of a museum. Water marks 30 and 40 feet up on the walls betrayed the fickle nature of the dry creek bed. When the rare thunderstorms of times past shed their water loads in the mountains, the rocks provided no absorption, but instead, focused the water into the narrow, deep canyon. Instant flash floods would crash down the gorge and force huge boulders and debris down the canyon at unbelievable speeds. As the valley narrowed the debris-laden water would rise higher and higher carving and polishing the canyon walls as the flood was forced downstream.
It was dry for us that day though. We exited the canyon and headed towards Stovepipe Wells to pick up supplies before heading back home.
Death Valley National Park
Montgomery City, California
Surviving Summer in Death Valley
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