Today has been a real day of inspiration. It was our last day in California (as we crossed into Nevada), but what a great way to leave the Golden State behind.
First stop was Zabriskie Point, only a few minutes’ drive from Furnace Creek, and the location of not only some of the most spectacular views in Death Valley, but also a wealth of pop culture references. This was the location for Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriksie Point, in which the young lovers get together in a stylised love scene in the dunes, staged with performers from California’s Open Theater. This is art cinema at its best and worst – a terrible flop at the box office, but interesting nonetheless. But that’s not all: Zabriskie Point was also the scene for the cover image of U2’s album The Joshua Tree. Not the shot with the actual tree in it, mind – that was taken on the other side of Death Valley not far from Lone Pine, though the tree itself has now fallen down and all that is left is a shrine to U2. The front of the album, though, has one of those black-and-white rock-stars-looking-arty-and-serious-in-the-desert-pics. And that was shot here. But that’s not all either! Perhaps most interesting to us was the fact that the French philosopher Michel Foucault was brought here in 1975, and invited to go on a trip of a different sort. He took LSD, an experience he later said was the best in his life, and perhaps one that influenced some of his later writings. It’s obviously been an alluring place for people, and the fact that there have been so many interesting connections with Zabriskie Point meant that we had to visit it!
Shortly after that, we took a detour off the main road to journey round Twenty Mule Drive, a scenic route of just a few miles between more wind-blown cliff faces and rocky sand dunes. This was part of the route of the original Twenty Mule team that transported Borax in the late-nineteenth century. Spectacular again, though there is so much spectacular stuff to see in Death Valley that you can get rather blasé about it all.
As we came to the end of our Death Valley odyssey, we drew into Death Valley Junction, a tiny village that was once the main artery of the Borax trade. We were keen to come here for a different reason: it’s the site of Amargosa Opera House, one of the most extraordinary theatres in the world.
This was set up in the 1920s as part of the mining village, which became a ghost town when the Borax industry left. However, in the 1960s, the ballet dancer and Broadway star Marta Becket discovered it when she got a flat tyre on a trip through Death Valley. At that point, the theatre building was disused and fallen into disrepair. In an instant she decided to renovate it, and over the next few years she lovingly restored it and started performing her one-woman show there. Now, there are not many residents in Death Valley Junction, so audience figures were low. So she decided to paint an audience on the walls of the theatre. The whole process took her 6 years, but the result is the most amazing set of murals on the walls and ceiling of this tiny jewel of a theatre. We were shown around by Gregory, who now runs the attached hotel and performs in the theatre during the winter months. He is absolutely passionate about the theatre, about Marta Becket’s work, and about the legacy she has left – and rightly so. This is really one of the most admirable projects we have ever encountered, and Marta Becket (now 91) must go down as one of the most inspirational women we have come across.
We said our good-byes to Amargosa Opera House to continue our journey. Lunching at a one-horse roadside town called Shoshone (named for the local Native Americans), we then took one of the most desolate roads we have yet travelled towards our final destination. For forty miles, the road meandered through stunning nothingness, sometimes in twists and turns, sometimes in long, straight, never-ending stretches of asphalt. In the course of that hour, we saw just four other cars. This was even quieter than Death Valley!
We had reached Nevada, whose landscape is subtly different than California – red rocks rather than sandy, and the occasional mountain goat in amongst the Joshua Trees. Eventually, we came across the major highway, and it wasn’t long then before we caught sight of our next destination: Las Vegas, aka Weird Town in the Desert.