Sunday, April 12, 2009

Death Valley Daze

I always liked Death Valley Days.  My father used to listen to it on radio before it ever came on TV.  I thought the 20 Mule Team Borax ads were great even though I didn't know what the laundry additive Borateem actually did.  Mostly though I liked seeing the land that was Death Valley and the plots of authentic stories of the American West.  The Old Ranger, Stanley Andrews was one of my early 60's TV favorites. You had to love his authentic, gruff personality; too bad he got replaced by Ronnie Reagan in 1965. That year also saw the writing become flimsier and not as authentic as the original episodes, of which there were 558, maybe the most successful syndicated Western on TV.  Other hosts included Australian actor Robert Taylor and Dale Robertson along with narration by none other than Country fiddler Merle Haggard.  Perhaps the most haunting part of DV Days was the memorable theme music and of course the scenery in the lowest and hottest place in the Lower 48.  I thought about all this as I climbed the Stovepipe Wells Sand dunes, used as a location Star Wars for the tiny jawas on the planet Tattoine. I also wondered if we'd see any sidewinders, always my favorite snake ever since Walt Disney's Death Valley desert movies.  No sidewinders but plenty of kit fox, coyote, kangaroo rat and chuckwalla lizard tracks.   Mostly, I thought about Peter O'Toole pointing towards "Aqaba," as he pushed through the desert trying to beat Anthony Quayle and the British regiment to the port city on the Gulf of Aqaba.   The lowest place in the lower Forty Eight at 282 feet below sea level, with a two mile vertical rise to Telescope Peak towering over the Badlands Salt Flats at 11,049.   Records told the tale of summer scorchers when the temperatures were 120 F plus while on top of Telescope Peak it was 50 or 60 degrees cooler.  Talk about extremes. Extremes are the appeal of Death Valley. That and millions of wildflowers, jumbles of green, orange and gold rocks, snowy summits over the valley and evening silence under moonrise. With the addition of 1.3 million acres in 1994, DV became the biggest national park in the lower Forty Eight.  
Ten years ago we drove through the newly added portion on the road from Big Pine, California into the northwest portion of Death Valley,  following a paved road that turned to cracked tarmac, gravel, washed out gullies and finally a barely driveable track with huge holes that a car could easily disappear in. By the time we got to Crankshaft junction, we'd passed the Eureka Dunes and the 4 WD road to The Racetrack and Grandstand, where rocks skid across the desert playa at random.  Six hours later, we rolled into the Grapevine Hills near Scotty's Castle, only to drive through a barricade with a sign facing the opposite direction.  We turned to look at it as we hit the main Death Valley Road. The sign said
 "Road closed."
 Then there's the hike up Ubehebe Crater and Little Hebe Crater, a volcanic explosion that occurred only 2000 years ago, but today is covered with black cinders and ashes which become home to thousands of Golden Poppies in the spring.  The explosion crater is half a mile wide and 700 feet deep.  There was a Land Rover with French plates in the parking lot when we returned from hiking. Their map emblazoned on the side of the Land indicated that they had driven around the world and were on their last leg before returning to France.  Their motto, "Jamais sans mon Land."  It seemed to fit. We hoped that they would drive it on the 27 mile tortuous excuse for a road to The Racetrack, knowing that all the drivers who had done the trip had taken two extra tires in case their originals were chewed to shreds. 
Wildflowers in the desert never fail to impress. Beavertail cactus with raspberry blossoms, Panamint daisies, Death Valley sunflowers, evening primrose, Death Valley milkvetch, Joshua trees, Spanish daggers, even the creosote bushes burst into yellow. 
The extremes also include the endangered Pup Fish.  There are only a few thousand left, relics of the Ice Age when the climate was wetter. Now found in Devil's Hole, a 500 foot deep cave where divers were going under to complete the second of three Pup Fish counts. We watched in awe as twelve biologists slipped into the 94 F degree water to disappear in the hole and count this 2.7 cm fish.  Salt Creek Pup Fish are more visible from a boardwalk through the Pickleweed in the salt pan. 
You think about a lot of thing while you're wandering the dunes in the desert sun, besides water, I couldn't quit humming Townes Van Zandt's Pancho & Lefty and the old Tehachapi to Tonopah lines of Commander Cody's Weed, Whites and Wine. I suppose because both towns are near and the lyrics work with all the mountains and gulches named for death and the Devil.  The Funeral Mountains, The Devil's Golf Course, The Devil's Cornfield, Coffin Peak, and the most ironic Dante's View ----of Purgatory or Paradise? 


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