Death Valley National Park (2010), CA

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It's been six years since our last visit to the Death Valley , and we were finally back in the dead of winter in 2010. Well, timing wise it was a bit of cheating since we did not brave its famous deadly summer heat as we always planned. But we decided that this trip was not meant to be an adventure, but to seek a piece of quiet, desolate, and wide open nature with views for some soul searching. And we thought Death Valley would fit the bill perfectly

Death Valley is a desert valley that expands 130 miles in length and 6-13 miles in width, surrounded by steep mountains. The name is quite self-explanatory. With probably the most rugged terrain in North America and the weather condition approaching the extreme, this is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Consider: Death Valley holds the highest temperature record of the continent by reaching 134F (56.7C) in July 10, 1913; yet in the winter months the nightly temperature is constantly below freezing. It's the most arid spot in North America; in some unfortunate years (such as 1929) it fail to record any measurable rainfall at all; but when it rains you must watch out for its deceptive flash floods, which constantly remodel the landscape and create vast lakes in the lowland. It boasts the lowest point in the Northern Hemisphere (Badwater Basin, 282ft or 86m below sea level), while the highest point of the lower 48 states is only 84.6 miles away (Mt. Whitney, elevation 4,421m). It's all so intensely dreadful and hostile, as if God has cracked open the earth just to let you take a peek at a small sampling slice of the inferno.


However, people do come and live in the Death Valley, for all kinds of causes: adventure, prospecting (for the alleged gold most of the time), work (mining for example), escape (from the authority some time), health (seriously, see below), and relaxation (like us). Some even built luxurious vacation home in such an improbable location.

In the northern end of Death Valley, hidden in the Grapevine Mountains, is a magnificent Spanish-Mediterranean style villa, commonly known as "Scotty's Castle." Built in the 1920s and 30s, Scotty's Castle is not exactly a castle, nor does it actually belong to the famed Death Valley Scotty as alleged (story below), but it's nothing short of a miracle. What is more astonishing than a plush, soft, cool, comfortable and refreshing dwelling right in the middle of the most hostile of all deserts? The well-preserved villa, with its handsome layout, ingenious design, intricate and richly ornamented interior, comprehensive facilities (has its own power house at a time when electricity has not yet permeated the US, a suit of advanced electric appliances, and even an enormous swimming pool, although never finished), would be impressive even in the Sonoma Valley. But in the middle of the desert heat? It's plainly insane... and incredibly romantic.

The romance of the castle, which intertwined with the prosperous1920s and the depressing 1930s, has a peculiar twist. For decades since the construction began in 1922, Walter E. Scott, or otherwise known as Death Valley Scotty, has publicly claimed ownership of the villa, which he named Scotty's Castle. But you probably couldn't find a more ill-fitted creator for the elegant villa than Scotty. A vagabond, a prospector, a cowboy, a performer, a crook, and a libertine, Scotty was quite a colorful character of his age. Highlights in his earlier life include being a stun rider in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show (1888-1900), breaking the cross-country train record in 1905, and most notably, conning several wealthy businessmen large sums of investments in the 1900's on a non-existing gold mine he allegedly found in the Death Valley. Therefore, it was quite a shock when Scotty announced in his typical dramatic style that he was building this lavish 2-million dollar desert castle with the money earned from his mysterious gold mine. In fact, the publicity earned him more legal troubles from his former victim and debtors than the reputation as one of the richest gold miners in the world -- he still hasn't paid a dime back to his investors.

Upon close inspection, you'll probably be surprised how a rowdy and vulgar desert rat like Scotty can summon this much class and taste. The exterior of the houses is decorated with unique fine ceramic tiles and hand-wrought irons. In the garage parked a 1933 Packard Twelve roadster, one of the fastest cars of its age, and still in mint condition today. The interior has all you can ask for in a dream vacation home: lushly thick carpet and rugs, soft and intricate tapestry, custom furniture, and even a music hall furnished with a majestic 1,000-pipe theater organ that can be programmed to play automatically, the ultimate home entertainment system of its time. Lost in the riveting collection of refined furnishment, you would half expect a splendid bucolic scenery outside that burly wooden door. But of course, what greets you instead is a thick wall of brusque heat wave of the deadly Californian desert.

And that brought us back to the reality. The villa, as many had suspected, did not belong to Scotty. Rather it's the creation of one Albert Mussey Johnson, Chicago multi-millionaire, insurance magnate, and a victim of Scotty's gold mine scam. Possibly the most fervent fan of Scotty's fabled Death Valley gold mine, Johnson poured thousands of dollars into the venture, and remained the sole investor (or victim) long after all others had smelled of deception and backed out. Eventually, Johnson visited the Death Valley, in the hope of inspecting the gold mine in person, but of course there was nothing to be seen. At the end, it was quite clear even to the trusting Johnson that the whole thing is but a swindle. But here's the thing, he didn't seem to care. During his desert tours, Johnson found the dry and hot weather and simple outdoor life salubrious to his frail health. What's more, to many's bewilderment, he developed a lasting friendship with Scotty. It's curious how the two, coming from so drastically different walks of life; got along so well. Johnson, a well-educated, religious, reserved, and abstinent gentlemen, was just the opposite to Scotty in every possible way. Probably the only similarity they shared was the inexplicable love to the desert.

With no prospect of harvesting any gold, Johnson nonetheless started to acquire land in the Death Valley. In the "Roaring Twenties," a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, Johnson's businesses thrived like everything else. And just like everyone else, who were in a frenzy of spending spree, Johnson decided to construct a more permanent dwelling for his desert vacations, to stay away from the rattle snakes and scorpions. So the villa, then known as Death Valley Ranch, slowly took shape. Scotty, never missed a chance for publicity, convinced Johnson to let him publicly claim ownership of the villa, accompanied with the trade-marked tall tales of his Death Valley gold mine and desert adventures. The reserved and retiring Johnson willingly took the role of playing "Scotty's banker," partly to elude publicity and partly for amusement. The villa is thus known as "Scotty's Castle" ever since. Before the construction was finished, unfortunately, the stock market crashed in 1929, followed by the most severe and long-lasting economic setback ever known to the modern world. The construction ceased in 1931 as Johnson was short on cash, and was never fully resumed. Part of the villa, such as the sizable swimming pool, was never completed, which to me is quite a pity. A turquoise pool of glittering water reflecting the scorching sand dunes would had added so much more character to the villa, I thought.

This Prince and Pauper-like story did have a happy ending. Johnson, with the desert life reviving his health, lived some 36 years longer than his doctor expected (he was thought not to live past his 40th birthday because of injuries from a train accident), and he maintained a life-long friendship with Death Valley Scotty. Scotty, who outlived Johnson for another 6 years, died in the villa, and was buried in a small hill overlooking the castle that bears his name. They must have been proud. Together they built a piece of heaven in the valley of shadow of death.


Although Scotty's Death Valley gold mine tales were just smoked baloney, they were not totally ungrounded. In 1904, gold was actually found in the eastern edge of Death Valley. While the memory of the 1848 Gold Rush still lingered, people quickly turned into a frenzy, thinking that it's finally their turn to strike it rich with a mattock. All a sudden prospectors, miners, developers, and large sum of investments flooded in, and they hastily built a town near the mine in 1905. The town was named Rhyolite because the gold was found in light-colored quartz abundant in the area. There were reportedly up to 5,000 residences in Rhyolite in its heyday (1907-08). But the heat quenched as quickly and it rose. In 1908, an investigation declared that the mine was overvalued, and the bubble burst. The mine was closed in 1911, and slowly, Rhyolite turned into a ghost town.


Today, Rhyolite is just a ruin. The three-story Cook Bank (1st pic below), once the tallest, most handsome building in town, is now just a few crippling walls standing on rubbles. These buildings are in such a miserable state because their building materials have been salvaged for construction in nearby towns, which is a shame. A proper ghost town should be left alone, preferably neatly kept, as if people just departed yesterday.


It was more than just gold that prospectors were after. The valley also have rich deposit of borax, which was called "white gold" is a self-comforting sort of way. Below is the remnant of Harmony Borax Work, one of the first borax operation in the Death Valley (1883-1888). Due to the high cost of transportation, the ore had to be purified in the plant before hauled to the nearest train station in these double wagon and large "twenty-mule-teams."


So there it was, this supposedly most desolate, broiling, and hostile piece of land in America, turned out to be not so sterile after all. Everywhere we saw traces of life and human endeavor. Piece of machinery, a broke-down wagon, a rusting truck, a villa, derelict mine fields, ghost towns, all testifying people's endless struggle against nature, to survive, to explore, to conquer, and to realize the American dream. This is a place that carries immense optimism, strength, and courage, despite the harsh climate and a pessimal name.


With that mental note, we viewed the Death Valley in a different light. Bad Water, for instance, no longer sounded like a complaint, but reflected certain wonderment and pride, as in "Oh yeah, I've tasted the water there; it was really BAD!" Bad Water is an endorheic basin at the southeast edge of the valley. It's known as the lowest point in North America (282ft / 86m below sea level). Because of the low altitude, water accumulates and evaporates, leaving excessive amount of salt in the remaining pool. No even the enduring mules want to drink from the pool, and thus the name. However, there were clusters of plant decorating the poolside, mostly Pickleweed. Where there is no water, salt crystallize and form a salt flat. Looking up, somewhere high up on the cliff, a sign says "Sea Level," which is kinda neat. Think about it, if we shift horizontally westward by 100 miles, we'll be 282 feet under the Pacific Ocean, enjoying the company of tube worms and spider crabs. Impressive. .

The valley just had a few rare inches of rain before we arrived. The water gathered at the flat bottom of the basin into a shallow pool, creating the illusion of a huge lake. It was becoming incredibly soothing and dreamy.


At last, we climbed up the Black Mountain to have a panoramic view of the inferno at Dante's View. Below us on the vast planar valley floor, streams and pools of water form eerie patterns that quietly radiated a warm glow under the twilight. It was all so serene and peaceful. We stood there, speechless for a long time, captivated by the thought that invisibly down there, innumerable tireless souls have gathered and labored in the dreadful heat, seeking their hope, their dreams, and their redemption. And some did find their own piece of heaven. Well, I think I need to take it back, this cannot be the inferno, despite their similar climate and geography. It's much too charming and inspiring to bear the name. We should call it the purgatory, where one seeks purification and salvation through suffering. And that concluded our pilgrimage. Now we shall go on with our lives, playing on in our own Devine Comedy.


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