Part One is Here.
Death Valley was everything I have ever imagined. Vast. Desolate. Beautiful. There were more people at Death Valley than Mojave, but the park is so large it didn’t bother me. In fact the only thing that did bother me was that our allotted time was far too short. On our way in, just past the ghost town of Rhyolite, we passed three wild burros on the edge of the road, and on our way out we saw a handful of wild horses. Somewhere in between we made an uneasy friendship with a Coyote that consisted of him eyeing us suspiciously, and us pointing and cooing at him. He got up and walked away. And we just watched him—the perfect predator. The animal that no matter what we humans do, we can’t seem to kill them out. In my home state of Utah there is still a $75 bounty on Coyotes, but they keep breeding, prospering, and living on. Thankfully.
In the northern corner of the park is a beautiful estate built in the 1920s called Scotty’s Castle—it was built by an insurance magnate who lost his fortune during the Great Depression and was never able to finish his Death Valley hideaway, but the portion that he did finish is impressive. The house is magnificent, and the National Park Service offers two distinct tours of the house: the living areas, and the tunnels that run beneath it. We decided we weren’t overly interested in the rugs and furniture, but the idea of dank and dark tunnels filled us with excitement, so we forked over the twenty dollars and went on the tunnel tour.
The tour took about an hour, and it consisted of us, the tour guide and a friendly gentleman from upstate New York. The tunnels, like the rest of the house, were never finished, but they were still impressive. The house used a condensation cooling system that blew desert air into the tunnels with a large fan past water-filled pipes that cooled the air before it was pushed into small shafts that vented into the main house. Impressive. Even more so if it actually worked.
When the tour ended we wandered the grounds, and met a myriad of interesting people. There was an older man who worked the bookshop, his wife sold tickets for the tours, and while there really weren’t many tourists, the few we met were kind, and very obliging. It was Christmas day, and everyone was glad to be in the California desert. We tried to find the mysterious sand surfing rocks—they call it the racetrack, but the old man at the bookshop warned us away with a “the road is terrible. The last car that tried it was stranded, and the towing fee was $1,800.” We decided next time we’d rent an SUV, and get full coverage through the rental agency. Poor bastards.
We spent the night in a Motel 6 in the tiny town of Beatty, Nevada. It has something like five motels, and one restaurant—Rita’s Café. Fortunately the food at Rita’s is, at the least, edible, and at the best pretty good. The next day we went back into the park with the intention of eating breakfast at Furnace Creek—the place was packed. We walked into a diner, and they told us it was an hour wait. So we plunged ahead down the boardwalk about fifteen feet to a buffet, dropped thirty dollars and had our choice of three mystery meats (I think they were turkey, ham, and an unappealing beef.) The salad bar was a little better—the food was at least identifiable—and it gave me good reason to eat more greens than cholesterol.
The heart of Death Valley is impressive. The road winds down below sea level, and to the west dry ranges rise some 11,000-feet into vibrant sky. It reminded me very much of the Great Salt Lake, but without the water, and a whole lot more people eyeballing it. That isn’t to say it wasn’t great, it just reminded me how much I love the Great Salt Lake, and how under-appreciated it is—thankfully. We headed out of the park early that evening because we needed to get to Las Vegas for the night—our flight was scheduled to leave the next morning. And damn if I don’t wish we had a few more days, hell, maybe weeks, to wander the desolation of Death Valley.