Three Families Arrive Years Apart at Death Valley National Park:
Her two small children snuggle beneath warm comforters with homemade teddy bears. Her exhausted husband lies snoring gently beside her. From sunup to sundown, he and the oxen have trudged behind the covered wagon ahead of them, with she and the children walking beside them. Already weary from the many months on the rough trail from Salt Lake City to the California gold fields, she peeks through the canvas, wondering how they will ever get through these brooding mountains. She feels joy in the twinkling stars on this Christmas Eve, but unbelievable weariness claims her body and Martha sleeps, blissfully unaware of what awaits them that winter of 1849.
It is late evening. The children had finally fallen asleep. Her husband snores gently beside her, tired from driving two full days from Salt Lake City to visit Death Valley National Monument. Mary peeks out the window toward the towering Panamint Mountains and feels joy in a sky filled with twinkling stars. She shivers in the delight of camping in a new 18-foot 1949 Airstream travel trailer.
It is 2014 as a retired husband and wife drive into Death Valley National Park and back their 45-foot diesel motorhome into a Furnace Creek Resort campsite with full hookups and Wi-Fi access. Elizabeth enjoys their motorhome with a bath and a half and three slideouts, and if she steps outside, she might see something that Martha nor Mary could have experienced nor believed, the International Space Station gliding through the star-filled night.
Many things change in 165 years, but one thing in Death Valley remains unchanged—the stars. It is possible to actually see the Milky Way or a meteor shower, and you don’t have to be a dedicated stargazer. Just look above you like Mary, Martha, and Elizabeth. The International Dark-Sky Association has designated Death Valley as a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park. Stargazing is one reason to visit Death Valley, but there are others.
Flora and Fauna
Birders appreciate the several ponds and a viewing platform adjacent to the Furnace Creek Golf Course, and the course has achieved the designation “Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.” A wide range of elevations and habitats allow 346 bird species to enjoy the park.
Because of the heat, most desert creatures are nocturnal and you rarely see them. Compared to cooler areas, the Valley’s 51 regional mammals tend to be smaller than average. The largest are burros and horses introduced by man, and available for adoption. You might occasionally see a mule deer or bighorn sheep, but in six visits, I have yet to behold a ewe turn. Thirty-six species of reptiles include the desert tortoise, known to reach 80 years. Toads, frogs and salamanders are a few of the amphibians.
Part of Salt Creek runs with brackish hot water year-round. It is here that the last survivor of historic Lake Manly resides. Among six types of park fish, the protected pupfish has an average length of two and a half inches and a life span of six to nine months.
One thousand plant species enjoy rainfall of less than two inches, but with last year’s rain, the desert and mountain slopes should be an amazing canvas painted in all shades of wildflower gold, pink, purple, yellow, orange and white. Our excitement at enjoying the blooming wildflowers is matched only by the “Great Pollinators,” the bees, hummingbirds, moths and butterflies.
20 Mule Team Borax
The Harmony Borax Works is the birthplace of the famous 20 Mule Team refinery that operated from 1883 to 1888. An original wagon and ruins are evidence of the activity that took place there.
Borax was discovered in 1881 and the commercial entities changed ownership, places, and names through the years. Among other products, it was used to make 20 Mule Team Borax, Borateem, and Boraxo. Hauling 46,000 pounds of borax on the 165-mile trip to the Mojave railhead required 12-ton-capacity wagons pulled by teams of 20 mules, thus the trade name, 20 Mule Team Borax.
Mules and drivers’ lives were unimaginably grueling during those 30-day round trips. One driver, found under a mesquite tree, was buried with this eulogy, “Well, Jimmy, you lived in the heat and you died in the heat and now you’ve gone to hell.”
The mule teams and borax products became household names thanks in part to the radio and television program, “Death Valley Days.” Created in 1930, it featured true stories of the Old West, and continued in reruns until 1975. One of the narrators became the 40th president of the United States. Ronald Reagan hosted the show in 1964 and 1965.
Walter Scott, described as a blustery, ruddy-faced man who wore a big white felt hat, checked flannel jacket, blue pants, and a bright red tie, was a prospector-hustler who literally threw money away. He convinced Albert and Bessie Johnson, Chicago millionaires, to invest in his secret gold mine.
When Albert Johnson came west to investigate, he was partially paralyzed from an 1899 railroad accident that killed his father. According to the book, Death Valley Scotty Told Me by Eleanor Jordan Houston, Scotty and Albert stayed in a tent camp where the castle would eventually be. Albert finally became adept enough to mount and ride a horse and the two of them rode up and down the canyons and over the mountains. Scotty claimed, “Johnson would come into camp laughing and joking…riding was good for his legs. The sun and dry heat was, too.” Although Johnson eventually discovered the mysterious mine was non-existent, Albert became fond of the amiable Scotty, and the two formed a lifelong friendship.
They built a $2 million Moorish-style castle with extraordinary furnishings from all over the world. It was always referred to as “Scotty’s Castle,” and the Johnsons didn’t argue. Albert was an engineer, and well ahead of common usage, the castle had solar-heated running water and other amenities you wouldn’t think of finding in a 1930s house in the middle of nowhere.
After being purchased by the U. S. Government in 1970, Scotty’s Castle became part of Death Valley National Monument. Now National Park Service rangers in period costumes show visitors through the elaborate castle and tell of this most colorful character. Scotty was married but presumably the couple was happier when they were not together. Scotty had a small ranch a few miles away, but mostly he lived the good life with the Johnsons and had his own room full of mementos of his marksman days with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. His clothes hang in the closet as though he were returning shortly.
Where did Scotty get his money? Some still say there was a secret gold mine; others claim it came from the Johnsons. Scotty is buried on Windy Hill above the castle, but he isn’t talking.
Many stories revolve around the happenings in Death Valley National Park and those who lived within its borders. The deeper you dig, the more versions you find. That is part of its charm. This magnificent national park is yours. Go, enjoy, and take water. God Bless.
Sharlene Minshall’s e-book novel, Winter in the Wilderness, is available at most Internet book sites. The print edition is available at Amazon.com or you can order an autographed copy from the author at Box 1040, Congress, AZ 85332 for $7.95, plus $3.50 for postage and handling. The fourth edition of RVing Alaska and Canada is available through Amazon.com. Follow her blog, “The Silver Gypsy” at rvlife.com.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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