Death Valley At Last
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by Frank Shortt
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For at least thirty years, Sharon, my wife, and I had planned a trip to Death Valley. For one reason or another we had been delayed until Friday, March 11, we decided it was time to go view the colors of the flowers and the surrounding terrain. Our conception of the Valley was one of endless flatlands with all varieties of cacti. We had a real surprise coming!
We arrived in Bakersfield on Friday afternoon just about rush hour. We had made arrangements to stay at a motel nearest Buck Owen’s Crystal Palace and Museum. We had heard that the food was very tasty there, and turns out it was. The museum consisted of memorabilia of Buck’s friends making up the Bakersfield Sound, the most famous being; Dwight Yoakum, Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose. My wife summed it up by saying, “I loved Rose Maddox’s dress” that was on display in one of the cases. Of course, we had to have photos, with Sharon choosing the bronze of Elvis Presley, and I chose the old King of country music, Hank Williams.
Saturday we arose to threatening clouds over the Tehachapi Pass. It looked as though we were in for a rough time from Bakersfield to Mojave. Outside of a few downpours, with lulls in between, we entered the Mojave/Ridgecrest Corridor without mishap heading north on Rt. 14. Upon reaching Hagen Canyon, better known as Red Rock Canyon State Park, we glanced up to see huge rock and soil formations resembling giant pipe organs. We had to stop for a photo op obtaining some great photos. The formation that gained my attention was one of upright pipes overshadowing an elves’ house. This natural phenomenon brought me back to my childhood when I dreamed of living underneath a tree with all the other elves scampering around doing their chosen careers, such as, shoemaker, equipment builder, cook, etc.
We moved on north up Hwy. 395 to the town of Lone Pine, an early movie colony. The museum there is great and shows the history of the first silent movies with Jack Hoxie and Ken Maynard, and also the first talkie western with Ken Maynard. The Alabama Hills just west of Lone Pine was the setting for most of the westerns filmed there. Some of the most well-known actors who made B-westerns there were: John Wane, Tim Holt, Robert Mitchum, William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Errol Flynn, and Randolph Scott. The air is so clear that movie makers had a natural setting for their craft. One can see the Alabama Hills in most of the early cinemas.
Sunday, a blustery day in Lone Pine, finds us moving on to Death Valley National Park. If one has never felt loneliness creep into your bones, this is the place to experience it. Wonderful pastel peaks and myriads of different flora can be viewed within a few short, but winding miles as you meander down into the lower regions. Few signs of fauna are evident in the park itself. Most bird life seems to congregate at the few oases along the way. In these areas of precious water we saw doves, crows, or ravens, wild pigeons, and vulture. It seems a fast drop from 4,000 feet above sea level to 200 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin. Along the way are many wonders to behold from the orange dodder parasite to the splashes of color in the surrounding hillsides. The orange dodder parasite was quite a mystery to us as no one seemed to know what it was. Its host is usually the creosote bush which in dry times dodder will eventually kill the host. Our mystery was solved as we visited Rhyolite Nevada and chanced upon a floral expert from Germany who told us she had been in the park for nine days already. She informed us that the orange plants we saw were indeed the dodder parasite. One who has ever felt the dodder parasite will never forget the stiffness of the plant. It was as though someone had sprayed it with multiple coats of spray starch. How like the dodder parasite are many humans who gain their existence from other humans. We spent Sunday night at the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort, a fitting end to our sojourn in Death Valley. As we moved on toward Rhyolite, Nevada ghost town on Monday, we reflected on all the different species of flowers that grew in this desolate environment. We also thought of the beautiful ‘Artists Pallette’ region which was a contrast to the stark region of alkali flats known as Badwater Basin.
Rhyolite Ghost town was exactly that! It has not been inhabited for many years except for a few hippies, hoboes and down-and-outers. We did spot some lonely burros as we drove up into the environs of Rhyolite. The outdoor museum is of some interest as the sculptor, A. Szukalski, has created plaster of Paris images of the Last Supper. There was also a large iron sculpture as tribute to all the miners who had sweated in the gold diggings of the Bullfrog hills. Gold ran out in 1911 and the company stock became nil.
The return trip to San Jose was one of much reflection about the wonders seen in Death Valley and environs. Some things just have to be seen in order to believe. It would take many more days to see all that Death Valley has to offer. Who knows maybe sometime?