A Visit to Death Valley, Autumn 2013


Someone once described being in Paris as being an ant crawling across a magnificent work of art.

Scotty's Castle, Death Valley
Scotty’s Castle

Death Valley is like that too, except that you drive, and early in November Robin and I devoted two days to the experience.

We came in from the north and turned west off US 95 at Scotty’s Junction, and drove the 23 miles to Grapevine Canyon and Scotty’s Castle. What a fabulous place it is, and what a fabulous story behind it. Death Valley Scotty and the weathly Chicago insurance magnate who bankrolled his action were a curious pair, but they complemented each other in the way that disparate souls sometimes do.

Scotty's Castle, Death Valley
Scotty’s Castle is a dreamy vision in its desert oasis.

The homespun Scotty enticed the citified Johnson to Death Valley with his wild tales of a hidden gold mine, and Johnson built this beautifully designed and constructed home as a setting for the life they shared with their wives and with each other. That’s the wonder of this place: it’s not just a “castle” it’s a beautiful and beguiling piece of architecture, an ambitious combination of art and engineering that cheers the heart and soothes the mind.

Scotty's Castle, Death Valley
The music room at Scotty’s Castle.

This is a unique treasure, valuable for both its history and its architecture — I could describe it, but the experience of your visit will soar above any description — has been preserved and maintained as a part of Death Valley National Park; tours are given by accomplished guides who make the visit informative and memorable. Highly recommended life experience.

We stayed at the Furnace Creek Ranch, a large campus like a small college or an upscale military base — it’s quite comfortable and surprisingly inexpensive — and the next morning we went to Zabriskie Point to watch the sun come up.

Photographers await the sun at Zabriskie Point

Here we had not only the transcendant experience of seeing the sun burst up out of the Funeral Mountains to the east and bathe the unearthly landscape in its light, but also a discouraging glimpse of human nature in action.

Photographers at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
The view westward from Zabriskie Point, with obstructions in place

We arrived as the sky was beginning to brighten and joined a group of 12 or 15 people from around the world, some of them with cameras already on tripods, waiting for the magic to begin. And waiting and waiting.

And just as the sun began to bulge up over the eastern horizon, a man and a woman walked up from the parking lot and then down a well-worn trail to set up their cameras and tripods directly in front of us. We looked at each other in wonder and amazement, and over our shoulders at the imminent sunrise, and back down at the intruders into the sublime view.


“Excuse me!” called a man whose large expensive camera was aimed at their backs, “You’re standing in our way!” No response. “Excuse me! We’ve been waiting here an hour to take photographs and you’re spoiling our pictures!” The interlopers looked back at us and replied, “There’s nothing that says we can’t be here. You should come down here too, there’s plenty of room and it’s a better photo.”

The view from Zabriskie Point at dawn
The view from Zabriskie Point at dawn

“I drove for two days to get here for this sunrise,” replied one of the photographers above. “You’re ruining my photo!” The downhill couple did not respond, and the photographer, fuming with anger and frustration, strode down to confront them. Those of us above watched with interest and exchanged commentary in a variety of accents, French, German and unidentifiable as well as home-grown American, almost unanimously annoyed at the lack of consideration displayed below.

Panamint Mountains at Sunrise, from Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
Panamint Mountains at Sunrise, from Zabriskie Point

The envoy returned, having failed to budge the pair below, and the grumbling above became more voluble. One man actually threw a small dirt clod at them, but it fell far short. One of the waiting crowd spoke up, “Don’t include me in your complaints,” he said. “If you want them to move, go down and talk to them.”

As the sun seemed about to explode out of the eastern crags, the envoy again hurried downhill to remonstrate with the offenders, and when he hurried back up again he announced that they had agreed to move temporarily to allow the uphill photographers a few minutes for unobstructed photos.

They moved, and shutters clattered as the sun rose and the shadows to the west shrank back behind the brilliant hills. Mayhem was averted, but the hard feelings remained, and everyone went away angry and upset from what had been anticipated as a transcendant experience.

Close encounter in Mosaic Canyon
Close encounter in Mosaic Canyon

In the heat of the day we took the Salt Creek hike in the valley floor, and I’m sorry to report that as the hours wore on and the sun was beating down, Robin left me to die along the trail.

Tragedy averted: pulled to safety by Shorty the Wonder Dog.
Pulled to safety by Shorty the Wonder Dog. Little Timmy would never have fallen into any damned well if Shorty were around.

Her natural gait is a determined stride, mine a meandering stroll.

A desert tragedy was narrowly averted by the fact that the trail is actually a carefully constructed boardwalk in a loop only half a mile long. Otherwise I’d have surely perished (except for Shorty the Wonder Dog and possibly for the many other visitors).

The Furnace Creek Inn at sunset

We visited several other of the spectacular landmarks in the Park, including the brilliant Artist’s Palette and Mosaic Canyon, a beguiling hike behind Stovepipe Wells, and found ourselves at the elegant Furnace Creek Inn, about a mile south of the Ranch, at sundown.

The tunnel into the Furnace Creek Inn, Death Valley
The tunnel into the Furnace Creek Inn.

You can drive up to the front entrance, but it’s more fun to park at the foot of the drive and enter by way of the loooong tunnel that delivers you to the elevator. Up you go from there, into the enchantingly designed and appointed hotel with its urbane bar and dining room. We had cocktails — tink! — as the sun set behind the Panamint range, far, far removed from the antagonism and ill will of sunrise.

Talking about Panamint City and Joe Conforte, but not in the same sentence
Talking about Panamint City and Joe Conforte, but not in the same sentence

It was my pleasure and privilege to address a breakfast meeting of the 49ers Death Valley Encampment at Stovepipe Wells, and I talked for a while about Panamint City, in which Nevada Senators Jones and Stewart were major investors (and losers), and about the subject of my current preoccupation, Joe Conforte.

Both topics seemed to be of interest, with Joe generating perhaps a shade more curiosity. The autobiography is in the final stages of preparation now, and scheduled for publication in the spring. Joe is one of 20th century Nevada’s most colorful characters, and he tells the story of his adventurous life with verve. It’s a story that might have been written by Horatio Alger on acid, the tale of a poor immigrant boy seeking his fortune in America. He succeeded by creating the famous Mustang Ranch brothel outside of Reno, and in the process became a hero to everyone who ever dreamed of grabbing the gold ring and getting away clean. Basically he did it by sheer determination and never, never, never, NEVER giving up.

Sourdough Slim and David Toll at Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley
Sourdough and me
The yodel-odel-odel-odeling cowboy

The biggest honor of the event, though, was that I was followed on the agenda by Sourdough Slim. I’ve been a fan since I first saw him some years ago at a tourism conference and watched in dismay as he struggled to remove his hat after he’d tugged it down too tight on his head. Most recently we watched him from the balcony at the Eureka Opera House. Slim is part harmony and part hilarity, part Gene Autry and part W.C. Fields, and I was honored to be on the same bill.

Panamint Mountains, Death Valley National Park
Panamint Mountains, Death Valley National Park

Slim makes regular appearances around Nevada, and you can get in on the fun at any or all of them. If you’re looking for a reason to get out and see some sagebrush, Slim’s a good one.

We drove west out of Stovepipe Wells over the north end of the Panamints and then over the Inyo Range into Owens Valley where we picked up US 395 for the drive home along the eastern foot of the Sierra, resplendent in fall colors, back home.



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