S3:E3 – Backtracks, Chapter 3: The White Heart

Edna and Charlotte bum around Silver Lake, chasing mirages back and forth across the dry lake bed, then take a treacherous drive to Saratoga Springs with the town’s sheriff. They get tantalizingly close to their goal in Death Valley, walking when they can drive no further and learning firsthand how the heat, light, and distance of Death Valley gave the place its name.

This episode was recorded and produced by Lisa McNamara. Supplemental text is by Lisa McNamara and original text is by Edna Brush Perkins. Music by Nesrality and Lesfm, and sound effect by SSPsurvival, all from Pixabay.


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This is Backtracks, a special series brought to you by Road Tripping in America. I’m Lisa.

This is chapter three of The White Heart of Mojave by Edna Brush Perkins, or EBP. If you haven’t listened to the earlier chapters yet – check back where you found this chapter and start there!

In chapters one and two, I introduced the concept for the podcast, gave some historical background, then Edna explained why she and Charlotte decided to go to Death Valley. They tried to get their trip underway but faced plenty of obstacles. Along the way they visited the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea and gained some healthy respect for the desert. Armed with new determination, they finally arrived on the doorstep of Death Valley in Silver Lake, CA, where they realized that they had found what they were looking for – they had found Mojave.


Chapter 3 – The White Heart

We had indeed found her. The morning sun came up over the immense valley ringed with beautiful, reposeful mountains. The big, empty mesas swept up to them, streaked with purple and green like the sea. Sometimes shining sand led between them to indistinguishable rose and blue. Such a palace of dreams beckoned toward Death Valley behind Avawatz, the sultry, red mountain that had been so magical in the night; and another called southward to the white desolation of the Devil’s Playground beyond the far end of the lake where stood a symmetrical, black, mountain-mass with a tongue of bright sand running up it. The black mountain and the shining tongue of sand were reflected in an expanse of radiant blue water. This was astonishing and we hastened to inquire the name of the river or lake that lit the distance with such heavenly brightness. The old German chuckled so much that he seemed about to blow up with access of mirth. Finally he was able to explain that it was only a mirage. We watched it all day and saw it change to a thin streak at noon and widen again at evening. The reflections of the bushes at its edge were so magnified that they looked like trees. To Brauer’s endless entertainment we insisted that trees grew there.

Ever since leaving Barstow we had been penetrating further and further into the Mojave. With every mile she had become more terrible and more beautiful. The colors which had delighted us at Joburg were pale beside the colors around Silver Lake, the mountains were hills compared to these beautiful, sinister masses. The sun had been brighter there than any eastern sun, here it was a hot, white blaze. All the way Mojave had asserted herself more and more. In the Imperial Valley, at Joburg and Barstow, we had felt men upon the desert, the drama was partly their drama; now, though they might still make roads and build houses, they seemed insignificant. We had but to walk two or three hundred yards from Silver Lake to forget it and be wrapped in the endless stillness. There was something awful in the silence, the awfulness which our savage (LM: I’ve left out savage, which is a racist word when used in this context and that isn’t needed to communicate her point) ancestors felt and bequeathed to us in our intangible fear of the dark and of the wilderness, and the fear of being alone which many people have; but there was greatness in it too, the greatness which is always to be found in the outdoors. Balzac remarks that “the desert is God without humanity.” Truly the earth lives, and the sun and the stars, a rhythm beats in them and unites them. They are the drama and the human story is only a scene.

The town of Silver Lake, such a little oasis of life in the solitude, is owned by the Brauers who operate a general store and give board to the few travelers who come to the mines in the neighborhood. They are mostly silver-mines, whence the name. A few years ago there was considerable activity when the Avawatz Crown and the big silver mine at Riggs were in operation. Miners came to “town” in Fords which no doubt resembled the junk pile we had followed from Joburg, and sometimes with pack-trains. The pack-train on the desert always consists of a string of burros. The burro in spite of his Mexican name, is nothing more than a donkey, the biblical ass. He seems to be native to all primitive places, the first burden-bearer. The prospector of the early days with his pick and shovel was a picturesque figure traveling across the sandy stretches from water-hole to water-hole. It is often a hard day’s-journey between the infrequent springs, sometimes a several-days’-journey. He dug and broke the rock, and sometimes he made his “strike.” Then the boom on the desert would begin. Settlers came in, roads were built and towns sprang up. The brutalities of mining-camps which we read of were probably reflections of the inhospitality of the land. The very characteristics which make the desert dramatic and beautiful make it terrible for mankind to overcome. The expense of mining operations in that hard country proved to be too great unless the vein were exceptionally rich, and most of the small mines are now abandoned. Nevertheless you still occasionally meet a prospector with his burros, and in remote places like Silver Lake the Ford has not entirely done away with the pack-train.

A number of half wild burros wandered around among the little houses attracted by the watering-trough though there was hardly anything for them to eat. The soil is said to be so alkali that nothing will grow there even under irrigation. A patch of grass six feet by two, carefully cherished by the Brauers, was the only green thing in town. We saw the list of electors (LM: aka voting citizens) nailed to the door of the general store. There were seven names on it.

A lonesome little railroad comes along the edge of the Devil’s Playground from Ludlow on the Santa Fé, past Silver Lake to the mining camps of Nevada. All the supplies for the neighborhood are hauled in on it through a country of shifting sand where no wagon-road can be maintained. Even a railroad, the symbol of civilization, cannot break the solitude. Great arteries of life like the Santa Fé and the Southern Pacific become very tiny veins when they cross the desert; the little Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad hardly seems to exist. (LM: The Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad was mainly used to transport borax, but also moved other mined materials, passengers, and supplies between Ludlow, CA and Goldfield, NV. It operated from 1907 until 1940. The rails were taken up in 1943 for use in WWII). You do not see the track until you stumble over it, the telegraph poles are lost in the sagebrush. There are two trains a week, up in the morning and down at night. During breakfast on train-day a long hoot suddenly cuts the stillness you have grown accustomed to. You jump. Mr. Brauer chuckles at you and finishes his coffee and his anecdote, and gets up ponderously and knocks the ashes out of his pipe and says:

“I guess she’ll be here pretty soon now.”

Presently you see him sauntering over to the station. In about fifteen minutes an ungainly line of freight-cars with a passenger-coach or two in the rear comes swaying along. Mrs. Brauer gathers up the dishes leisurely. She hopes they have brought the meat. The last time she had boarders they didn’t bring any meat for two weeks. If they bring it she promises to make you a fine German dinner. She never goes out to look at the train. Nobody does, except you, who stand in the doorway and wonder at it. Ever so long ago you used to see things that resembled it. It is a curiosity like the strange, long neck of the giraffe. Like the giraffe it has a momentary interest. It goes, and the silence settles down again with a great yawn.

The dry lake on whose shores the town is situated is three miles wide and eighteen miles long, of a brownish-purple color. The surface is hard and covered with little ripples like petrified waves. It is the sink, or outlet of the Mojave River, whose wide, torn bed we had seen at Barstow spanned by an iron bridge. The river-bed had been as dry as any part of the desert, and we had supposed it was just an unusually wide, deep wash. We now learned that in times of heavy rains or much snow in the northern mountains the Mojave River thunders under the iron bridge. On a later trip, when we were staying at the Fred Harvey Hotel in Barstow (LM: which is still there today – it now serves as an Amtrak station, office building, and museum. The building was designed by architect Mary Colter, who is most famous for her buildings along the south rim of the Grand Canyon. While there,), we once saw it (LM: the Mojave River) come to life over-night. In the evening its bed lay dry and white under the moonlight, in the morning it was full of hurrying, turbid water. From Barstow the river-bed winds through the desert to the purple-brown basin at Silver Lake. Were the Mojave a normal river its water would always flow down there and the hard dry lake would be blue with little white waves running before the wind, but it is a desert-river and gets lost in the sand. Occasionally the water flows past Barstow, but it hardly ever arrives at Silver Lake. It came once in the memory of the present inhabitants, and covered the dry lake to a depth of three or four feet. The water gradually evaporated and in a few weeks was gone. Our kind entertainers showed us pictures which they had taken of the real lake with boats on it. At that time both the town and the railroad were in the lake-bed and had to be hastily removed before the oncoming flood. An amusing incident happened one day at dinner when an artist from San Francisco, who had stopped off on his way to paint in Nevada, was boasting of the marvels of his city risen from the great fire and earthquake.

“Well,” remarked our host with the same subterranean chuckle that he lavished upon us, “Silver Lake ain’t so bad. We pulled her up out of the water once already.”

(LM: Silver Lake is gone now, not even a ghost town, only a shadow on the land where a small town once stood. On a satellite map, you can see the outlines of houses and buildings, where the train station might have stood, a few mesquites, and a small cemetery surrounded by a fence and more gravesites than you’d expect, including modern ones for WWII veterans. The graves are outlined by white and gray rocks, still lovingly cared for by relatives and strangers. The site is off route 127, on the way from Baker to the southern entrance to Death Valley NP, near a string of high tension power lines that now run around the northern edge of the big, dry lake bed.)

We tried to imagine the great expanse of living water, how it would ripple and shine at its edges, and the purple mountain-tops would be mirrored in it. Once the mirage had come true.

Every day we watched the dream water increase and diminish at the base of the black mountain with the tongue of silver sand running up it. The illusion was always best in the morning, but never quite vanished while the sun shone. It was so perfect that incredulity at last compelled us to drive down the eighteen miles of the lake-bed and explore it.

Brauer’s eyes twinkled as he filled our gasoline tank. “You think the lake ain’t dried up yet, hey?” We kept our thoughts to ourselves.

The first surprise was when we reached the end of the lake and had not reached the mountain. It looked just the same except that the water had vanished—hidden maybe by the brush that covered the sand. Our host had said something about a road, but we had been so sure that the mountain was at the edge of the lake that we had not listened carefully enough and failed to find it, so we left the car and walked through the brush. The bushes were very small and starved, growing several yards apart on ground that was hard and covered with little bright stones like packed-down gravel. The most flourishing shrub was the desert-holly with gray, frosted leaves shaped exactly like the leaves of Christmas holly, and small lavender berries. The following Christmas Mrs. Brauer sent us great wreaths made of it and tied with red ribbons to decorate our homes, a happy present that brought the hot brightness of the desert into the gloom of an eastern winter. As we walked among the little bushes the sun was very hot and the mountain seemed to travel away as fast as we approached it. The second surprise was when it also vanished entirely and three black hills stood in its place. They were ugly and looked like heaps of coal. The beautiful peak which we had seen was some ten miles further back on the main range which shut off the Devil’s Playground. It had composed with the three black hills to form the symmetrical mass. There was no water either, and no trees.

The desolation was stark and sad; sand and sand with hardly any brush reached to the distant range. The palace of dreams was gone. Disillusioned, we climbed upon the nearest coal-pile, then suddenly we saw the miracle again, in the north this time, whence we had come. The town of Silver Lake was mirrored in blue water as shining and as heavenly as the vision which was lost. The houses had weathered a deep orange and burned in the sun. The white tank set upon stilts above the well was dazzling to look at. Trees grew beside the glistening dream-water. It was brighter than any town or lake could possibly be; it was magical.

Thus the desert keeps beckoning to you. Either the unknown goal, or the known starting-point, or perhaps both at the same time, are magical; only “here” is ever dreary. While we sat on the coal-pile Mojave related a parable:

“Once three brothers slung their canteens over their shoulders and came to me. They traveled many days toward my shining. They were often thirsty and very tired. Presently they came to a spring, and when they had rested a dispute arose. The eldest brother wished to hasten on, but the second said that my shining appeared no nearer than at the beginning. Nay, he did not believe in it, he would stay where he was. The youngest, however, agreed to accompany his eldest brother and the two set out once more. They crossed high mountain-ranges and deep valleys, but my shining was always before or after. In the seventh valley the youngest brother also began to doubt me and refused to go any further.

“‘I will stay here,’ he said, ‘these bushes have little cool shadows beside them, and the ground is bright with little colored stones and there are flowers. Stay also and let us be happy.’

“But the eldest brother would not stay.

“He traveled all the years of his life toward my shining. The second brother turned the spring into a lake and built himself a house with orange-groves around it. The third brother rested in the cool shadows and rejoiced in the little bright stones.”

We listened intently, but there was no moral.

In spite of our host’s “Mein Gott!” we still persisted in our idea of going to Death Valley. It was now only thirty miles away where a shining such as had led the brothers on beckoned beyond the Avawatz. We learned that this route was impossible for a car, and so dry that even pack-animals could hardly enter the valley that way. However, we could make a detour of nearly two hundred miles, striking the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad again at Zabrisky or Death Valley Junction, and possibly get in that way. During the debate the sheriff of Silver Lake, a silent person decorated with pistols, volunteered to go with us beyond the Avawatz as far as Saratoga Springs, and as much further as we could drive the car. He would promise nothing as he had not been there for some time and was a cautious man, but he thought we might find it worth while. Any one of those bright paths was worth while to us, and we eagerly agreed.

That day’s excursion proved even more memorable than the drive from Joburg. It was like a continuation of it, becoming ever wilder and stranger. We had already heard a few of Mojave’s songs, bits of her color-songs, and her peace-songs, and underneath like a rumbling bass her terror-song—but we were as yet only acquaintances on the way to intimacy. Ever since leaving Barstow we had felt that we were advancing through progressive suggestion toward some kind of a climax. Mojave was leading us on to something. Her heart still lay beyond.

A good enough track led north along the railroad for a few miles and then swung around the base of the Avawatz. We drove up an interminable mesa where the alleged road grew always rougher and less well-marked, and the engine had an annoying tendency to boil. The wind was from behind and the heat of the sun radiating up from the white ground made it impossible to keep the engine cool. We crossed a ridge among red and purple hills of jumbled rock and began to descend into an oblong, sandy basin. The road became so unspeakable that the Sheriff advised leaving it for the white, unbroken sand of a wash. For miles we made our own track, winding around stones and islands of brush. We were in a sort of outpost-valley south of Death Valley itself, and separated from it by what looked like a low ridge of gravel, but we no longer believed in the reality of what we thought we saw. As a matter of fact the ridge was succeeded by others, and the only way to get into the main valley was through an opening with the startling name of Suicide Pass (LM: which is now called Jubilee Pass. According to the NPS, a miner named Chester Pray started building what became the southern park access road in 1913 to transport mining ore out of Death Valley to the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. One morning Pray was found dead – his death was ruled a suicide, but to this day some people think he was murdered. Construction had just reached the summit of the road’s western pass, which became known as Suicide Pass. In his honor?). The valley we were in is usually considered to be a part of Death Valley; on many maps the low basins stretching north from the Avawatz for nearly a hundred miles are included under that name.

On both sides of the outpost-valley stood mountains of every hue. They were maroon, violet, or black at the base shading into lighter reds and clear yellows. One yellow mountain had a scarlet spot on its summit like a wound that bled. The dark bases of the mountains had a texture like velvet, black and purple and olive-green velvet, folded around their feet. As we descended the wash toward sea-level the heat and brightness of the sun steadily increased. Each color shown in its intensity. The bottom of the valley was streaked with deposits of white alkali that glistened blindingly. The whole world was an ecstasy of light.

Saratoga Springs is a blue pool with green rushes growing around it, in the angle of a dark red mountain. The water bubbled up from the bottom of the little pool. A marsh full of green grass and coarse, white flowers led back from the pool, spreading out into a sheet of clear water which reflected the bare mountains and the vividly green rushes. Though this real lake in the desert was a pure and lovely blue, and dazzlingly bright, it had none of the magicalness of the dream-water by the three black hills. Somehow it just missed enchantment. Henceforth we would be able to distinguish mirage by this indescribable quality.

Saratoga is the last appearance of the Armagosa (LM: Amargosa), or Bitter River, before it loses itself in Death Valley. Like the Mojave River the Armagosa (LM: Amargosa) gets lost. It flows southward through the desert, sometimes roaring down a rocky gorge, sometimes vanishing completely for miles in a sandy stretch, then reappearing unaccountably to form oases like the one at Saratoga. Opposite the southern end of Death Valley it suddenly changes its mind and turns north on itself to enter the valley where it makes a great bog encrusted with white, alkali deposits. The Armagosa (LM: Amargosa) flows through an alkali desert carrying along minerals in solution, which give its water the taste that has gained for it the name of Bitter River. The water of Saratoga Springs is flat and unpleasant, though it is fit to drink. There are stories of poison-water in Death Valley, but most of the springs are merely so full of alkali and salt that they are repulsive and do not quench thirst. At Silver Lake the water is strongly alkali. Everybody uses it, but when a supply of clear spring-water can be hauled in from the mountains they all rejoice. The Sheriff’s partner, Charley, had a barrel full which he shared with us while we were there. The pool at Saratoga was full of little darting fish, strange to see in the silent, lifeless waste. The Sheriff saved some of his lunch for them and sat a long time on the edge throwing in crumbs. Once, he told us, he had camped there alone for three months prospecting the hills, and they had been his friends. (LM: these are Saratoga Springs pupfish, a subspecies of pupfish that only lives in this specific spring! Though typically they eat blue-green algae, not bread…).

We attempted to drive beyond Saratoga Springs. There was supposed to be a road, but neither Charlotte nor I could discern it. We bumped along over ground so cut by shallow water-channels that after about seven miles we dared not proceed, for a wrecked car in that shining desolation would stay forever where it smashed. (LM: from what I can tell, they were heading NNW from Saratoga Springs, to intersect with what is now route 178 where they would access the valley via Jubilee/Suicide Pass. Satellite maps show faint traces of roads all over this area, and it makes sense that there’d be multiple paths into the spring from all directions, since it was one of the only consistent sources of water for miles. It also could have been Harry Wade Road, but that makes less sense since that road doesn’t cross the pass.) We tried to walk to the top of the gravel-ridge that seemed to shut off the main valley. It looked near and innocent enough, but when we tried to reach it over the dazzling ground under the blazing sun we found, to our surprise, that we could not. The temperature was about 95 degrees, and the air very dry. The heat alone would have been quite bearable had it not been augmented by the white glare. Suddenly we realized that the little ridge was inaccessible; all the little yellow hills and ridges, and the rocky crests that shone like burnished metal, were likewise inaccessible. The realization brought a terrifying sense of helplessness. Here was a country you could not travel over: though your goal were in sight you might never reach it. The strength and resourcefulness you relied on for emergencies were of no avail; an empty canteen, a lost burro, a smashed car, and your history might be finished. We began to understand why this place, so gay with color, so flooded with light, so clean, so bright, was called Death Valley.

Before us was the opening in the mountains where the terrible valley itself lay. It was magnificent in the biggest sense of that big, ill-used word. On the east side rose the precipitous Panamints with a thin line of snow on their summits; opposite them the dark buttresses of the Funeral Mountains faded back into dimness. Between the ranges hung a blue haze of the quality of the sky, like the haze that had obscured the hot Imperial Valley. The mountains were majestic, immovable, their summits dwelt in the living silence. The haze had the magicalness of mirage. We longed to go on while the sun went down and the silence turned blue, for now we were certain that under that haze, between those imposing walls, lay the climax to which Mojave had been leading us, her White Heart. She could never be more desolate, or stiller or grander. It was the logical journey’s end, and what had been at first merely a casual choice of destination became a fixed goal to be reached through any hazards.

“If you go there,” the old prospector had said, “you will see something you won’t see anywhere else on earth.”

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That’s the end of chapter three. If you’re ready for chapter four, check back where you found this one or visit roadtrippinginamerica.com. Thanks for listening!