Edna and Charlotte get their first look at the place they’ve been trying to see for over a year. Standing high above the valley floor, overlooking Death Valley for the first time – do you think they were happy they were there or nah?
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.
This is Backtracks, a special series brought to you by Road Tripping in America. I’m Lisa.
This is chapter five of The White Heart of Mojave by Edna Brush Perkins. If you haven’t listened to the earlier chapters yet – check back where you found this chapter and start there!
In chapters three and four, Edna and Charlotte bummed around Silver Lake, then took a drive to Saratoga Springs with the sheriff – getting tantalizingly close to their goal in Death Valley, walking when they could drive no further and learning firsthand how the heat, light, and distance of Death Valley gave the place its name. They decided that they couldn’t drive into Death Valley – a more traditional, formal expedition would need to be mounted if they were going to reach their goal the way they wanted to reach it. So they went back home, back east, and waited for the hot desert summer to pass. In January, they returned once again to Silver Lake and to their guide, the sheriff. The trio traveled by railroad to Beatty, NV, where they rented a cart and horses, stocked up on a month’s worth of supplies, and headed west towards the valley.
Chapter 5 – Entering Death Valley
The way to Death Valley from Beatty is across a shallower valley and through Daylight Pass at an elevation of 4,317 feet. First the road winds down around small, rough hills, at whose base the deserted town of Ryolite is situated. Ryolite is what remains of a mining boom. It is pushed into a cove of a rose-colored mountain—but desert mountains change their hues so often that it may not always be rose. Ryolite is a typical American ruin. Its boom was very brief. The town sprang up over-night. Money was poured in. Water was brought for miles in a pipe-line, a railroad from Beatty begun, and permanent buildings erected—it had the pride of a “thirty thousand dollar hotel,” and a bank to match. Immense energy and enthusiasm of youth, middle-aged greed, too, with its eye on the immediate main chance, went into its making. No doubt some people profited by the building of Ryolite. It was a tumult of “American initiative”—then it did not pay. It is easy to picture the promoters, their important hurry, their “up-to-date methods,” their big talk. It is easy to picture the investors too. Nearly everybody who has money to invest buys stock in a gold mine once. Great hopes converged on the desert here from many a board-sidewalked town and prairie-farm; futures were built on it. There is a throb in the throat for Ryolite, fading into the mountain, its corrugated-iron roofs rusting red like the hills. The desert is licking the wound with her sandy tongue until not even a scar will remain. Sooner or later she heals all the little scratches men make on her surface.
(LM: but not yet! Rhyolite is still a ghost town, but it had the great luck to be preserved as a historic site that is now managed by the Bureau of Land Management and overseen by volunteer hosts. It’s one of the more accessible ghost towns to visit, with a paved road leading right into the center of town. Rhyolite was the largest town in the Death Valley area, with a population of 5,000-10,000. During its height, from 1905-1911, it had 2 churches, 50 saloons, 18 stores, 2 undertakers, 19 lodging houses, 8 doctors, 2 dentists, a stock exchange, an opera, and a school for 250 kids. The ghost town now contains numerous ruins including the Bottle House, which is exactly what it sounds like – a house made of 50,000 beer and liquor bottles. It also has a well-preserved and privately-owned train depot, the remains of a 3-story bank building, a general store, a brothel, and a jail, the obligatory piles of rusty metal junk strewn about the desert, and a cemetery nearby.)
The dead town faced a wide valley stretching like a green meadow to the opposite mountains. The thick sagebrush melted together into a smooth sward over which cloud-shadows floated. The sun evoked lovely, changing color-tones from it, like a musician playing upon his instrument, making harmonics of violet and brown and sage-green flow beneath a melody of pure blue. A perfectly straight road cut a white line through the meadow. The distance was ten miles, but no one unaccustomed to the clear air of the desert would guess it to be more than three. The road appeared level with a slight rise under the western mountains which had strong, dark outlines on the sky. They looked purple and their lower masses kept emerging from the main range and fading again as the shadows circled. (LM: this is now one of the main routes into Death Valley – and this is one of my favorite vistas: the road is a straight line with no sign of modern development and it’s how you know you’re getting close, that you’re almost there.)
It took Molly and Bill a long time to travel the straight, white line. By turn we drove and walked, as the three of us could not ride in the wagon at once. Already the superiority of this mode of travel over Fords was being demonstrated. We felt the simple bigness of the desert, and were intimate with the indigo shadow under each little bush, and the bright-colored stones; we had time to make digressions to some new cactus or strange-looking rock while Molly and Bill plodded on. For hours we crossed the valley, hardly seeming to progress. The same landscape was always before us, yet we were in the midst of a changing pageant. Soon Ryolite was lost in a mass of pale rose and blue that seemed like a gate to another world. The knowledge that the mountains were made of dull-red, crumbling rock, and that only Beatty lay behind them could not destroy the illusion. It grew fairer as we left it. The dark mountains in front became formidable silhouettes as the afternoon sun inclined toward them. We could never quite see the canyon by which we were to reach the pass; several times we thought we saw it, only to lose it again in the subtleties of shifting shadows.
Soon after crossing the middle of the valley the road began a long, brutal ascent. Mile after mile it steadily climbed until the sweat made furrows in the shaggy coats of Molly and Bill; but to us, walking ahead of the wagon, the valley looked level as before, and only our greater exertion convinced us of the rise. Here was one of the characteristic mesas of the Mojave; nothing is quite flat there except the narrow bottoms of the valleys. Suddenly the road reached the outposts of the mountain and became much steeper through the sandy wash of a canyon. The walls on either side gradually grew higher and the sand deeper. The ungainly load proved almost too much for the desert-proof steeds. At times we all three had to push, and we often had to stop to rest. Night came while we were still toiling upward. It was cold, and a bitter wind blew between the walls. During one of the halts the Worrier gathered up some bits of wood by the roadside, the remains of a ruined shack, and thrust them under the cinch-ropes.
“We’ll need them,” he said, buttoning his inadequate coat to the chin. “We’re in luck.”
“You’ll find we’re always in luck,” we told him through chattering teeth.
At last Molly and Bill succeeded in reaching the top of the pass. The spring was still half a mile away in the side of a mountain. We did not attempt to take the wagon there, but the Worrier took the tired animals and brought back the water while Charlotte and I found a place fairly sheltered from the wind in the bottom of a wash, lugged down the bits of firewood and the “kitchen,” and began to cook our first meal on the desert. Soon we heard the Worrier shouting unintelligible things. Much alarmed we scrambled hastily up out of the wash to find him returning, followed by a troop of wild burros. They were not in the least discouraged by his violent remarks, but came all the way and stood in a half-circle around the wagon, twitching their furry ears. He was noisily vehement. He said that they would steal and eat anything from our blankets to his precious chilies sealed up in tin cans; that they had no conscience, they were the pirates of the desert. During dinner he kept making excursions to the top of the wash to throw stones at them. He guarded the wagon all night by sleeping under it, a practice which he continued throughout the trip, greatly tranquilizing our minds. Burros and coyotes were the only marauders, and we knew that they would have a hard time of it. Charlotte and I dragged our bed-rolls a little way down the wash. It was a wild night. The stars had an icy glitter and the wind made dismal noises among the fearsome-looking mountain-tops; before morning it snowed a little, but we were too tired to care.
The rising sun awoke us. It leapt up over the mountains; soon every trace of the light snow was gone, the ground dry, and the air warm. From Daylight Springs a fairly good track led down eight miles to the northern rim of Death Valley. Near the end of the descending canyon Corkscrew Mountain appeared, a symmetrical mass, striking both on account of its red color like crumbling bricks and for the perpendicular cliff which spirals around it like a corkscrew. Through the field-glass the cliff was a dark violet and might be a hundred or more feet high. Corkscrew Mountain stands out boldly from its fellows, nor while we were in the valley did we ever lose sight of its sun-bright bulk. It became our landmark in the north.
Opposite Corkscrew Mountain the road turned abruptly around a point of rock. Charlotte and I were walking ahead of the wagon, we went gayly to the end of the promontory and were brought to a sudden stop by what we saw. There, without any warning of its nearness, like an unexpected crash of orchestral music, lay the terrible valley, the beautiful, the overwhelming valley.
The Official Worrier stopped the wagon. Though he thought us insane, though he declared he could see none of the colors and enchantments we had been pointing out to him, he was moved. From the look that came into his eyes we knew that, whether he admitted it or not, like Shady Myrick he was under the terrible fascination of Mojave. That, after all, was why he had been willing to come with us to the White Heart.
“Well,” he said brusquely, “that’s her!”
We all stood silent then. We were about three thousand feet above the bottom of the valley looking down from the north over its whole length, an immense oblong, glistening with white, alkali deposits, deep between high mountain walls. We knew that men had died down there in the shimmering heat of that white floor, we knew that the valley was sterile and dead, and yet we saw it covered with a mantle of such strange beauty that we felt it was the noblest thing we had ever imagined. Only a poet could hope to express the emotion of beauty stronger than fear and death which held us silent moment after moment by the point of rock. Perhaps some day a supreme singer will come around that point and adequately interpret that thrilling repose, that patience, that terror and beauty as part of the impassive, splendid life that always compasses our turbulent littleness around. Before terror and beauty like that, something inside you, your own very self, stands still; for a while you rest in the companionship of greatness.
The natural features which combined to produce this tremendous effect came slowly to our understanding. They were so unlike anything in our experience, even of the wonders of the outdoors, that they bewildered us. The strange can only be made comprehensible by comparison to the familiar, and perhaps the best comparison is to a frozen mountain-lake. The smooth, white bottom of the valley looks more like a frozen lake than like anything else, and yet it looks so little like a lake that the simile does not come easily to the mind. Death Valley is level like a lake, it is bare like a lake, cloud-shadows drift over it as over a lake, the precipitous mountains seem to jut into it as mountains jut into a lake, but there the comparison ends and its own unfamiliar beauties begin.
Evanescent streaks and patches of color float over the shining floor between the changing hills. It reflects them. Sometimes a path made of rose tourmalines crosses it, or a blue patch lies near one edge as though a piece of the sky had fallen down. Lines of pure cobalt, pools of smoky blue, or pale yellow, or pink lavender are there, all quiveringly alive. At times the white crust shines like polished silver, at others it turns sullenly opaque. Now a blue river flows down the center—now it moves over under the western wall—now it gathers itself into a pond around which green rushes grow.
High above the middle of the valley tower the Panamint Mountains. That winter their summits were covered with snow as white as the white floor, and as shining. Without apparent break into foothills they rise nearly 12,000 feet. Seldom, even in the highest ranges, can you see so great a sheer rise, for most mountains are approached from a considerable elevation. In Death Valley the eye begins its upward journey below sea-level. Down there the white floor shimmered and seemed to move while above it the two peaks of Telescope and Mount Baldy (LM: since renamed Rogers Peak), joined by a long curving ridge of snow, were a remote, still whiteness.
The eastern wall of the valley is not so high, but is hardly less impressive. The Funeral Mountains are steel-blue with layers of white rock near their summits. Both the mountains and the valley were named because of tragedies down on that white floor during pioneering and prospecting days. It is impossible to get the details of the stories from the old-timers, each has a different version and no one is very clear even about his own. One story is of a party of emigrants, men, women, and children, on the way to the gold-fields with all their household goods, who entered the valley by mistake and could not find a way out; another is of a party who were attacked by Indians and fought in a circle they made of their wagons until the last man was killed. The remains of the wagons are said to be buried in the sand near a place called Stovepipe Wells. We never could learn the exact location, though on a later trip we met a man who said that he had once actually found them, and that he had seen Indians around there wearing jewelry and using utensils which they could only have obtained from the white man sometime in the (LM: eighteen) fifties. (LM: which could of course have been obtained by means other than murder!) There are also stories of individual prospectors who perished on the burning sands. It does not matter which particular tragedy fastened such names on this region of celestial day, they commemorate all whose last sight of the earth was that lonely splendor.
The Funeral Range is separated by a deep canyon from the Black Mountains which continue the eastern wall of the valley. This wall is from five to six thousand feet high, jutting into the basin in great promontories as mountains jut into a rock-ringed lake. The range across the southern end is not so high and was half hidden by an opalescent haze. All the time we were in the valley that haze persisted. Only rarely and for short periods could we see any detail in the depths of the hot basin, though the foreground sparkled in the stark, clear air. The Imperial Valley and Death Valley are always hung with misty curtains.
A long, long slope leads from the rock promontory from which we first saw the valley down to that shimmering pit. It is very rocky, cut by washes and sparsely covered with sagebrush and greasewood. Occasional little yellow or blue hills rise like islands from blue-green waves. The ground is covered with little stones of every conceivable color, which flash back the sunlight from their polished surfaces. Unfamiliar green and purple stones lie around, and bright red stones, and a stone of a strange orange-color like flame. A mass of this is what we must have seen at Saratoga Springs on the mountain that bled. The impulse to pick up specimens was irresistible. This proved to be the curse of walking over the bright mosaics. Each little stone was of a color or texture more alluring than the last until our pockets became unbearably heavy. Every resting-time was spent in trying to decide which ones to throw away, but as we could not possibly throw one away on the same day that we picked it up, this was a fruitless occupation.
About noon we lunched in the shade of one of the little hill-islands. During the descent the heat had steadily increased and the sun shone with white, blinding intensity. The Official Worrier grew expansive and happy. He described himself as a “desert rat,” and said that the hot brilliance suited him entirely. He called it a pleasant, warm day. Charlotte and I were continually looking at the little blue spots of shade behind a bush or projecting rock to rest our eyes. We could no longer look away over the valley, objects merged and vanished there. One of my recurring dreams since childhood is of trying to walk or run in a light so dazzling that I could not keep my eyes open for more than a few seconds at a time. That day my dream strikingly came true. Everywhere bright heat-waves ran over the ground. The surface of stones and the tips of leaves glittered dazzlingly. It was probably no hotter than it had been at Saratoga, but the reflection of light from the immense white bottom of the valley was an almost unbearable brightness. (LM: I can’t imagine being there without sunglasses.)
Our destination was an abandoned gold-mine on the side of the Funeral Range. From the lunch-place the Keane Wonder Mine looked on a level with us and quite near, but we traveled two hours and made a stiff climb to reach it. This was the hardest bit of marching that we did, for we were too ignorant of the effects of such a combination of heat and blinding light to know how to conduct ourselves. We thought we were sick or overtired, and being much too proud to let the Worrier suspect such a thing, pressed on without stopping often enough to rest. We had not yet learned that the wagon was always accompanied by a blessed bit of shade that we could sit down in any time. Later we appreciated fully this happy attribute of wagons. More than once we were grateful to the Worrier for refusing to come with a pack-train.
The mine was a large plant which had paid well. A mess of buildings, some half-blown-down, pieces of machinery and the big red mill huddled at the mouth of the canyon where the mountain rises steeply from the mesa. The mine itself was higher up the canyon down which the ore was swung in huge buckets that ran on iron cables. Water had been piped from a spring a mile away, but the pipe was broken. The ground was far too rough to allow us to take the wagon to the spring, so once more the Worrier led off Molly and Bill and brought back water in a pail. Earlier in the day we had lamented the necessity of camping among wreckage, but when we reached the first building, which once had been a barn, its oblong, indigo shadow was Heaven. We lay prone on the ground behind it until the sun went down, not attempting to unload the wagon or do any useful thing. The Worrier found us thus on his return and gravely opined that we had better stay a while at Keane Wonder and try to get acclimated.
(LM: you can still visit Keane Wonder today – the mill and tramway ruins have been stabilized, though the “mess of buildings” is long gone. Wood and other building materials were often moved to other towns to be reused due to the lack of easy access to building supplies in Death Valley. Sometimes entire buildings were moved, intact. There’s a great example of that at Rhyolite. Sometimes they were just used for campfire wood. Serious efforts at the Keane Wonder mine had shut down in 1912, less than ten years before EBP and Charlotte visited.)
During the three days that we camped behind the barn we were living about a thousand feet above the bottom of that amazing valley, looking down into it and up at the still, white peaks of the Panamints above it. Opposite Keane Wonder what looked like a low, sandy ridge separates the main sink of Death Valley from a similar though smaller and less striking basin called the Mesquite Valley. The high Panamints end in a stern red mass near the sand-ridge, beyond which a long slope like the one we had come down leads to more distant mountains which, however, are a continuation of the range. Emigrant Pass through the mountains over to Ballarat starts from the slope and winds around behind the stern, red mass. That may well have been the way out which the party of emigrants who perished sought and did not find. Most of the time the steadily pressing wind of the desert blew through the great, bright space. Often we saw it pick up the sand far down at the edge of the valley and whirl it along in tall wraiths that looked like ghosts walking over the white floor.
On the second evening a bell sounded in the dusk. When you travel with burros on the desert it is the custom to put a bell on one of them at night so you can find them in the morning, and often the bell is left on during the day’s journey. That sound meant that someone was coming to our camp-fire. Soon a frail old man with two loaded burros and a little dog appeared. It was “Old Johnnie,” an habitué of Death Valley, coming home. He had an unworked gold-mine near Keane Wonder and he spent his life looking after his property. Apparently he was also the official caretaker of Keane Wonder itself. He performed his duties by looking over our camp and guarding every bit of wire and every old rusty nail as though they were gold itself. He hovered around us, especially at departure, so we only succeeded in stealing one iron bar for our fireplace, and we needed two. We cast longing eyes at a certain chipped, granite kettle, but finally had to borrow that, promising solemnly to return it at Beatty on our way back. Perhaps he was unduly suspicious because the Worrier had taken a bit of some very ancient and hopeless-looking hay, which we found in the barn, to cheer up Molly and Bill.
“How could I know he lived here?” he apologized to us. “Anyways, there wasn’t but two mouthfuls.”
But “Old Johnnie” was hospitable, as all old-timers are. He urged Charlotte and me to move into the superintendent’s house. It had been a good house once, but in its present condition we preferred the open sand, nor could we bear even for a night to have a roof between us and the blue deeps of that star-filled sky. He was a garrulous talker and very friendly. He claimed that his mine was richer than Keane Wonder ever dreamed of being. Once some one had offered him $300,000, but his partner would not look at it. His tone implied that it was a paltry sum anyway. He was an inventor, too, and had sold a patent for an automobile-part which he described in great detail. We asked him if he still hoped to sell the mine. He seemed not to know what he intended to do. Plainly he was another victim of the “terrible fascination.” He related how he had lately been to Tonopah and got sick and almost died from lack of air in the clutter of things. The Worrier said that he had money put away somewhere, but money or no money, whether he ever sold the mine or not, he would hang around Death Valley the rest of his life.
“Old Johnnie” rose to fine heights as a story-teller when we invited him to dinner next day. We had brought some fresh meat which had to be used up early on the trip, and the Worrier achieved a magnificent meal. Usually I was the cook, but that dinner was far beyond me. He invaded the ruined boarding-house, wrestled successfully with the rusty stove, and produced a roast surrounded by potatoes and onions to be long remembered. We ate it at the board table in the dining-room. “Old Johnnie” changed his coat for the festivity; he beamed upon us and talked. He had the good story-teller’s gift of suggestion and in the midst of that blazing emptiness steeped in a silence broken only by the wind clanging rusted cables and rattling the loosened iron roof, he peopled the dining-room again. We saw the faces of the men crowding in for their supper and heard their voices. Once more the camp-cook in white apron and cap, for “Old Johnnie” described it as a fine camp “run right,” leaned over the table to pour soup into granite bowls. Keane Wonder came to life while the obliterating desolation crept in at the door.
He told stories of other mining camps and of the struggle of individual prospectors with the valley. You outwit its wickedness or you are outwitted by it. It was alive, a sort of fascinating enemy. His words took us with him and his burros down its white length. The enemy had uncanny powers. She played strange tricks on you. If she could not get you one way she tried another.
“You find fellers dead down there,” he said. “And they don’t die of thirst, either. Sometimes there’s water in the canteens. They just go crazy. She gets ’em.”
He leaned closer across the table and his voice became lower.
“And you hear ’em in the night,” he whispered.
“Them. I call it the Lonesome Bell.”
“What is the Lonesome Bell?” We found ourselves whispering too.
“You hear it. It’s a bell. It rings regular, far off. Sometimes you hear it all night. It sounds like the bell on a burro. But it ain’t nothing. Once I had a young feller for a partner, and when he heard it he got up and made coffee for the outfit that was coming. He wouldn’t believe me when I told him it wasn’t nothing but the Lonesome Bell. He waited and waited and nobody came. And the next morning he packed up and beat it.”
Old Johnnie’s eyes glittered with unnatural brightness. He was telling his own secret. Very vividly he made us see a man alone in the blue night, dim sand spreading away, dark-blue mountains on blueness. Not a sound, not even the breath of the night stirring the sagebrush. Through white, empty days and blue, empty nights he is always alone. He listens to his own heart beating. Then, far off, the faint sound of a bell. Then again. He listens intently because it is the only sound for such a long time. It comes again. It grows louder. He strains to hear. A bell belongs on a burro—he hears the tramp of burros’ feet.
With awe we looked at those bright, intent eyes and that thin body bent tensely forward. Some night the Lonesome Bell will be true, but “Old Johnnie” will not hear it. A belated traveler with his pack-train will find a dead camp-fire and an old man asleep forever beside it. “Old Johnnie” has outwitted the valley so long that he thinks he can always do it, but she will get him in the end.
After dinner “Old Johnnie” unlocked the mill and showed us the costly machinery inside, explaining in careful detail the processes of milling gold. The canyon behind Keane Wonder is narrow and precipitous as though it had been gouged out by a giant’s trowel. High up on the mountain-side the dumps of iridescent rock around the mine-pits shimmered. We sat with him on a beam of the ruined mill while he pointed things out in the valley. He showed us where Furnace Creek Ranch lies on the sand by the opening of the canyon between the Funeral Range and the Black Mountains, but we could not see it because of the heat-shimmer and the misty veil. He said that the stern, red mass opposite was called Tucki Mountain, an Indian word for sheep, because the Panamint Indians (LM: correct name, the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe) used to hunt wild mountain-sheep in its fastnesses. The smooth, bare slope beyond the Mesquite Valley, he said, was really very rough, cut by deep water-channels and covered with brush; and rose in that gradual way nearly 3,000 feet before it reached the mountains. The curious streak in the bottom of the Mesquite Valley was the swamp of Salt Creek, where the water was so bad you could not drink it. It joined the morass in the bottom of Death Valley. There were quicksands there, that you could not get out of if you got in. Men and burros had been lost that way. He pointed out little, white heaps down by Salt Creek and said they were sand-dunes a hundred feet high.
While we sat there a storm swept down the big slope and around on the face of the high Panamints above Death Valley. First the wind lifted the sand in the tall whirling wraiths that fled before the pursuing host of the rain. It came on like an army of giants in bright armor, dust-clouds swirling before their horses’ galloping feet, the sun gleaming on their million spears that reached higher than the mountain-tops. In the midst of blazing sunshine the shadow of their passing was dark on the valley; for a few moments they obliterated the mountains.
“Surely,” Charlotte said, “it is pouring rain over there, yet they told us it never rains in Death Valley.”
“That’s some rain,” he admitted, “but maybe it ain’t wetting the sand. I’ve been in storms like that when the water all evaporated before it got down.”
“But it must rain sometimes and the water get down,” I objected to both of them, “for Shady Myrick said that he had seen the valley full of flowers.”
“I’ve seen ’em,” he assented, with a sudden eager lighting of his face—”yes!”
They did not happen to bloom while we were there but we believe in them. Anything might happen, anything could be true in that terrible, bright place.
That’s the end of chapter five. If you’re ready for chapter six, check back where you found this one or visit roadtrippinginamerica.com. Thanks for listening!