Published: August 10th 2012September 24th 2011
Driving through Death Valley
This morning, I drove north through the valley.
The road runs along the mountain foothills where they reach the desert floor.
The heat is nearly unimaginable.
The road has multiple signs warning of flash flood danger.
They look about as silly as the signs in the mountains warning to carry tire chains.
At the right time of year, both of them become deadly serious
, as the sand streaks across the road make quite clear.
Near the northern end, the paved road turns east into Grapevine Canyon.
Immediately, the heat drops.
It continues to drop as the road travels up the canyon, until it becomes almost bearable.
Yuccas and other desert plants appear.
Eventually, the road reaches a surreal sight in this empty desert, a large adobe house on the side of the canyon.
This house relates to one of the west’s bigger tall tales, Death Valley Scotty
Although he neither built it nor owned it, it’s now called Scotty’s Castle
A modern museum on the site covers the story of the house
Death Valley Scotty was a western legend in his own mind
The house now called Scotty's Castle in the northern end of Death Valley
long before he became one for his tall tales.
Walter Scott was born in Kentucky in 1872.
In 1890 he became a trick rider in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (see July 7th
He and Wild Bill had a falling out a decade later, and Wild Bill fired him.
He spent a few unsuccessful years prospecting for gold until he ended up in Death Valley in 1902.
Soon afterward, he started travelling around the country with gold nuggets in his pockets.
He claimed that the nuggets came from a gold mine he dug somewhere near Death Valley.
He then gave people, particularly local businessmen, a chance to invest in the mine and share in the profits.
Death Valley Scotty always had takers.
Nobody seemed to notice that the promised profits never materialized.
One day Albert Johnson
, a businessman from Chicago and former miner, became concerned.
In 1906 he asked Death Valley Scotty to show him the mine.
Scotty responded that it was located deep in the desert near Death Valley and would take many days to reach.
Several days later, they and other
Scotty's Castle main room
Death Valley Scotty often sat on these chairs telling stories to guests. Some of them were even true!
men took off on horseback from Daggett California.
Deep in Wingate Pass, they were attacked by masked bandits.
The ruse fell apart when one of the party members was hit and Scotty started shouting at the bandits to stop!
Surprisingly, instead of killing Death Valley Scotty for this, Johnson hired him.
During the ride, he had fallen in love with Death Valley.
He returned multiple times over the next two years, always paying a visit to Scotty.
He loved the pristine landscape, dry air, and the sense of isolation compared to Eastern cities.
Johnson was far from the first eastern businessman to fall in love with the West like this (see July 6th
Equally important, he had fallen in love with all the western tales (some of them even true!) Death Valley Scotty told during his visits.
His wife, Bessie Penniman Johnson
, also loved the valley but wanted modern amenities.
Albert Johnson decided to build a vacation house in Death Valley so they could have both.
He gave Death Valley Scotty a room there.
Johnson chose this site because it has one of the
Scotty's plain bedroom at Scotty's Castle. Remember that he did not actually own the place.
few reliable springs in the valley.
Given Scotty’s gift of gab, it wasn’t long before he convinced most people the house was actually his own, hence the name.
The house must be seen on guided tours
Tickets sell quickly, and any wait must be done in high heat, so get there early.
The house has Spanish Southwestern architecture based on existing models from Los Angeles.
The buildings have stucco walls and red tile roofs.
The main building has a large central hall flanked by rooms on two wings.
Like the mansions of Florida (see March 23rd
) this layout promotes air flow to keep the house cool.
The central room has elaborate carved wooden beams on the ceiling, a huge fireplace, and a huge wrought iron chandelier.
The furniture is all from the late 1920s, all covered in leather and expensive wood.
Directly off this room on the first floor sits Scotty’s bedroom.
His patron set it there deliberately, so he would always be in the central room to tell stories to guests.
The room is surprisingly simple.
A row of old cowboy hats
20 Mule Team Borax Cart
Cart used to cary borax from Death Valley. The photo is from the rear
hangs on the wall.
A big portrait of Buffalo Bill sits over the bed.
Remember that Scotty and his former employer did not get along by this point.
Our guide speculated the Johnsons chose it as a reminder to Scotty about who was really boss.
Despite appearances, Scotty rarely slept in this room.
He found it too ostentatious.
More importantly, word about his mine scheme had leaked out and people came by looking for him.
The room has a door to the outside.
Almost every night, Scotty snuck out and slept in a miner’s shack in another part of the canyon, safe from prying eyes.
A hole goes through the wall near this door.
Going outside shows it is covered by a metal plate shaped like a horizontal half-tube.
This plate relates to one of Scotty’s larger tall tales.
He claimed he had it installed for protection.
One end of the tube points toward the door and the other toward a window.
Scotty claimed that if anyone tried to sneak up on him, he would shoot through the hole and they would
Harmony Borax Works
The remains of Harmony Borax Works
be killed by the ricochet.
He claimed he could kill two people at once this way!
The remaining rooms are more elaborate.
All feature beautifully carved wooden beams, tiles, and impressive furniture.
When seeing it, remember that everything had to be hauled by wagon from the nearest train depot, which took two days per trip.
The dining room contains an elaborate carved table and a huge collection of dishes.
The kitchen contains an icebox.
Ice was shipped in from northern areas, just like Florida.
The tour ends in the music room.
The room is most notable for its pipe organ, a cousin of the Aolean Organ at Reynoldia (see April 5th
It plays automatically from player piano rolls.
The park service has restored it to functional condition, which our guide then demonstrated.
Several outbuildings sit near the main house.
One holds a garage with a number of old cars.
I wonder how they survive in this heat.
Another covers the original spring.
A large concrete depression sits next to this, which looks like a ruined foundation.
Human golf course
The surreal Furnace Creek golf course in the middle of Death Valley
the remains of the outdoor swimming pool the Johnsons used in the winter.
A large wooden cross sits on a hillside, marking Death Valley Scotty’s grave.
Driving down the canyon after the tour, the heat is really rising.
It rapidly climbed to the level of a furnace.
I thought Black Rock City could be bad in the heat department (see Sept 2nd
), but this is worse.
Being at Black Rock may have contributed to what happened next.
By the time I got to my next stop, I was feeling rather light headed.
I attributed the feeling to dehydration and drank even more water.
I stopped at the Harmony Borax Works
Prospectors discovered borax
in the valley in the 1880s.
The mineral had high demand at the time for use in soap and other cleaning products.
It sold so well that miners called it ‘white gold’.
Despite the extreme conditions, they set up mines and processing plants.
They then had to get the mineral to the nearest railroad stop.
To do so, they developed large wagons with huge six foot wheels which did
Devil's Golf Course
The Devil's Golf Course salt flat in Death Valley
not sink in the sand.
To pull them, they used teams of twenty mules
, giving the brand name “twenty mule team borax”.
One of the wagons sits at the entrance.
The processing plant itself consisted of a series of vats.
from the mine was mixed with water and heated to boiling.
The mixture was then piped to other tanks, where the borax crystallized on the walls as it cooled.
All that remains of the plant is the foundation, a long wall made of bricks, and a restored tank.
By the time I got back to the car, I was really feeling nasty.
My lightheadedness has gotten worse, now accompanied by nausea.
I also have a headache.
As it turns out, I’m far from the first visitor to feel these symptoms in Death Valley.
They are so common the park newsletter has a big warning about them.
These symptoms mark heat exhaustion
, where the body absorbs more heat than it can safely sweat out.
Internal temperature rises, just like having a fever.
If not quickly treated, it will lead to heat stroke and
Don't put these salt piles on the dinner table!
Being in Death Valley is literally killing me.
Unfortunately, the only cure for heat exhaustion is cold water and a cooler environment.
I pulled up the convertible top and turned the air conditioner on full.
This marks only the second time this trip I have had the top up in good weather (Black Rock City Exodus is the other, see Sept 5th
These measures prevented things from getting worse, but they weren’t getting any better either.
I drove to the nearest ranger station.
They sent me to the Furnace Creek Bar.
Not to drink alcohol (it increases water loss); to drink ice water and sit in air conditioning for the next few hours.
By the time I left, the heat was finally letting up for the day. Furnace Creek
was a full resort before the park bought it.
As such, it has a golf course
This course has a wonderful trivia note, being the lowest elevation course in the world, 214 feet below sea level.
It looks rather surreal, all green grass and palm trees surrounded by empty desert.
With the temperature finally low enough to safely explore (a mere 100 degrees!) I went to the Devil’s Golf Course
This feature is a vast plain of salt.
Every winter, a little bit of water percolates through, dissolving the salt and then depositing it in little mounds.
Sand blows into the salt mounds, so most of them have big brown spots.
To my mind, they make the area look dirty, and much less picturesque than expected.
People can hike over the salt mounds, but often get a surprise.
Unlike a pile of table salt, these mounds are rock hard.
Even worse, many of them have sharp edges.
Falling here causes significant injuries.
I walked carefully, picking my way through the ridges watching my balance.
Further along, the road runs next to a mountain ridge.
It turns a corner and reaches a large flat area of perfect white, the Badwater Salt Flats
A point far from the road is the lowest point on land in the United States, 284 feet below sea level.
The roadside parking lot is two feet above this.
Lowest Road in the US
Parked on the lowest road in the United States. The tiny sign in the upper center marks sea level
The ridge has a sign at sea level to show the full depth.
Next to the parking lot sits a wide spring.
Thanks to the salt all around, the spring water is nearly undrinkable.
Pioneers who passed through the area gave the spring the name ‘Badwater’ after they noticed their livestock would not touch it.
A boardwalk leads from the parking lot into the salt flats.
The early part goes over mounds like those seen at the Devil’s Golf course.
After that the salt becomes completely smooth.
The boardwalk ends at this point, where a clear streak from hundreds of hikers continues through the salt flat.
The surface of the salt is hard and completely flat, much like the playa at Black Rock City.
Sadly, some people just had to carve their names into the salt along this stretch.
The streak goes over a mile over the salt.
Eventually, the landscape becomes incredibly disorientating.
A surface of white salt stretches in all directions, with no landmarks whatsoever.
I carefully memorized what the surrounding mountains looked like on the way out, because
these are about the only way to find the way back.
Aside from that, the effect is surprisingly pleasant.
Heading back to Furnace Creek, a road branches off marked ‘Artist’s Drive
It is the easiest way possible to see the Death Valley back country.
The road is paved, but also narrow, twisty, and rather steep.
Mountain driving skills make things easier, although they aren’t as needed as some previous back roads (see Sept 12th
The road runs through the lower part of the Amargosa Range, weaving around and through sandy washes and narrow canyons.
The cliffs along the way have bands of visible rock layers in a wide range of colors.
Settlers called them the Artists Cliffs, and they then gave the name to the road.
I ate dinner at Furnace Creek, for the same reason I ate at Stovepipe Wells yesterday.
The dining room looks like something out of the western frontier, although the food is average.
Afterward, I encountered a huge problem.
Death Valley is a long way from any town, and I discovered I don’t have enough gas.
Multicolored rocks near the start of Artist's Drive
has a gas station, but it had closed for the night.
Usually, this means I can pay at the pump with a credit card.
For the first time on the entire trip, these pumps take only debit cards!
I’m about to be stranded in Death Valley with no place to stay, because lodging is sold out for the night.
A manager at Furnace Creek finally came to my rescue.
He paid for my gas with his debit card, and I then paid him in cash.
That was really close.
The price was also higher than I want to contemplate.
Now with fuel, I could get out of the park.
Night has fallen by this point, so I didn’t see much except mountains near the road.
Once beyond the park, things changed a bit.
I encountered the next town, which had a gas station.
I feel less bad about getting gas in the valley now, because the prices were little better here.
Gas in the Mojave Desert must be the most expensive in the United States.
I also saw a large white glow on the
A portion of the Artist's Cliffs along Artist's Drive
The Mojave has relatively little light pollution, so that glow really stuck out.
Looking at a map, the source of that glow became painfully obvious; I encounter it pretty soon.