Travel journal: Stovepipe wells

The wind has been blowing hard over the past couple of days and clouds have been forming over the arid patches of this majestic landscape. The information board at the Ranger Station mentioned 50 per cent chance of showers in the afternoon and perhaps a thunderstorm tomorrow.  Rain in the desert? I've got to see that!

It is our fourth day in Death Valley. The travel from Palm Springs felt long, too long. As we passed through Adelandato, Four Corners, Lone Pine and other God forsaken towns along the road we felt like old time pioneers in search of better fortunes. We were heading East, on opposite direction. We reached the park through its west entrance in the Panamint Range Mountains.  A few miles into the park and a beautiful canyon vista opened up before our eyes: majestic and imposing. This superlative landscape is so typical of this part of the country. We had to stop and admire the greatness and stillness of the site. But the calm of Father Crowly Vista Point was soon to be disturbed by two noisy fighter jets of the nearby air force base. As black as the crows that populate the Valley the mighty jets cut Rainbow Canyon in a low thunderous flight before the speechless tourists. What a performance!

From Father Crowley to Stovepipe Wells it felt as if we were on a roller coaster. The road went up and then down leading to a flat wide valley soon to be followed by another uphill battle for our hybrid vehicle, a downhill relief and flat valley and yet another uphill conquest  and downhill celebration after which we finally arrived at our destination. The mountainous road was decorated by small low bushes of red, yellow, orange and purple flowers--little oases of color amidst the brown mountain. Temperatures were considerably lower on the mountains than in the valleys (by at least 20F) providing some much needed respite from the heat of the valleys.

 The General Store and the no-brand gas station of Stovepipe Wells

The General Store and the no-brand gas station of Stovepipe Wells

Stovepipe Wells is located in the Mesquite Flat— an enclave between the Cottonwood and the Grapevine Mountains. It has an outpost character; maybe it was an outpost originally. Simple, rustic and unpretentious, it is full of character. I loved the no brand gas station (two lonely pumps) all in white and with an eerie look under the neon light. I also liked the general store with its six or seven rocking chairs guarding its entrance. Adorable! Behind the general store lies a sad looking camping site with a few brave RVs. No tents. Across the road, a saloon (excellent selection of beers and a very good pulled pork quesadilla), a restaurant and a motel completed the site.  It felt as if John Wayne would arrive at any moment leading a bunch of settlers and their wagons. He never showed up. Instead we were constantly visited by groups of rough and tough looking guys with their gigantic and noisy bikes.  Often dressed in black jeans and sleeveless T-shirts, they also wore sunglasses hiding their wrinkling faces and bandana covering their graying and balding heads. Some had a goatee or tattoos in the forearm, and others had both. They were all stocky, had a beer belly and walked in a stiff way— legs curved, arms rounded by their side. I could almost hear them roaring “Ggrrr…” Muy macho! Oh Dear! Missing gentler Palms Springs already...

Yes, Death Valley is hot; it is very hot. To conquer the heat, one has to act strategically. This implies waking up very early for our morning hike. We used to leave the motel by 6:00 AM and were back by 10 for breakfast, usually the only ones in the restaurant by then. The morning expedition was followed by a long break by the pool until 5PM or so, when we would chase sunsets somewhere else. There was no other way with temperatures ranging from 100 to 110F. The dry heat sucks not only your juices (we were constantly using eye drops) but also your energy. So, we adapted to the environment and became some sort of desert creatures: going out only when it was cooler.

The exception to the above rule was our visit to Scotty's castle: a Spanish-style mansion built in the late 1920s by Al Johnson. It is a beautiful house, with Spanish tiles, Italian porcelain and austere furniture. But what was really interesting were the characters who lived there. What a story this is! The house owes its existence to some kind of scheme by this man, known by all as Scotty, who was some sort of extravagant celebrity. An excellent story-teller he convinced people to give him money to be invested in a gold mine he was developing in Death Valley. People did, and Scotty continued to live his extravagant life till one day Johnson, a magnate from Chicago, asks Scotty to see the mine. An expedition is organized and Scotty arranges for a fake robbery to take place and scare Johnson out of the Valley. But the robbery went wrong as Scotty’s brother is hit by a bullet. Truth is revealed. But now the story turns around as Johnson had the laugh of his life, falls in love with the Valley and builds this grandiose house in the Grapevine Mountains, in a paradisiac oasis. More fascinating still is that Johnson keeps feeding into Scotty’s fake stories and tells everybody the house is Scotty’s; Scotty entertains guests there. There is even a “special bedroom” for Scotty which is, of course, on the top of the entrance of the famous gold mine. Amazing! The Valley is not only the landscape; it is also the people who lived here.

 Scotty's castle

Scotty's castle

Near Scotty Castle there is the gigantic and colorful Ubehebe crater. The crater was the result of a massive volcanic explosion. Six hundred feet deep, it is located in a windy section of the Park. One feels one is going to be blown away into the crater. Suffering from vertigo, I could not approach. I just panicked out of there. But Bruno had a ball watching the crows trying to conquer the wind, unsuccessfully. The poor creatures could not take off…

Titus Canyon was a more manageable enterprise. At sea level, it offered the possibility of a nice hike, something that is not very common in the Valley. There are just few hikes that one can do, and most of them are what the rangers call “interpretative”. There is no designated trail. There is no major risk of getting lost either. Less imposing but providing a very pleasant hiking experience was the Mosaic Canyon, nearby Stovepipe Wells.  The lower part of the canyon has white-ish marble polished walls. The canyon is narrow in some points at the beginning, but then it opens up as it moves up offering interesting and colorful perspectives. It has a dead end though…

But the major attraction of Stovepipe Wells is the sea of dunes just a couple of miles away from our motel.  And that is where we headed for our first sunset in the desert and where we kept coming back for more sunset, sunrise, and hiking. They are not as high as the ones I visited in Colorado (Great Sand Dunes National Park) and thus more manageable. And, as in Colorado, these are sand dunes amidst mountains with still vestiges of snow, which to me is mind-boggling. It seems so contradictory and misfit. But it was the silence that I liked the most in the Mesquite flat dunes, followed by the vistas. It was very soothing to climb the top of a perfectly angled dune and just stay there, observing and absorbing the surrounding landscape. The muffled sound of the bikers roaring far, very far away…

 Sunset at the Mesquite Dunes

Sunset at the Mesquite Dunes

[First published on May 6, 2014]