Day 19: Zabriskie Point and Death Valley Junction

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.

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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!

20 mule drive

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.

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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!

Nevada the road to Nevada

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.

Day 18: Death Valley

OK. So we all know that Death Valley is dry, arid and desert-like, that there is narry a plant growing and that you’re more likely to see a coyote dropping rocks off cliffs than you are to see a blackbird. (Though as it happens the roadrunner is a common enough bird in these parts – even if we haven’t seen one!) But before you trek out from the Ranch at Furnace Creek, stop off at the on-site Borax Museum, a wealth of information and a fascinating insight into Death Valley then and now.

To our amazement, it turns out that Death Valley was once a gigantic lake with tropical forest growth and plenty of flora and fauna. We’re going back a few years, mind (like, millions). Most contemporary accounts document the area from around 1850, when coach loads of gold prospectors stumbled into the valley by mistake and promptly proceeded to regret it. They didn’t find a great deal of gold, though the mineral they found that could be exploited was Borax – still a fundamental component of soap, pyrex and glass, and still a major US export. It’s quite amazing to read how these pioneers not only managed to make this hostile landscape habitable, but also managed to forge thriving industries, with mines, rail connections and mapping projects to develop the infrastructure of this uninhabitable environment. Sadly, much of the prospecting yielded very little, so mining towns blossomed and then withered, leaving a host of deserted ghost towns in the desert, and just a couple of existing communities, one of which is the Ranch at Furnace Creek.

Another surprise is that Furnace Creek itself was established as a leisure resort as long ago as 1940, as lots of the memorabilia, photos and paraphernalia dotted about the complex attests. Back then you could order New York Steak at the restaurant for a dollar, watch movies for an evening’s entertainment, swim in the hot spring pool, and even ride the narrow gauge railway to the most local Borax mine as part of your itinerary. Some of those delights are no longer available (and the New York Steak is a great deal more spenny, though presumably it’s a fresh batch of meat). However, what is available is a wealth of stunning photo opportunities including the lowest point in America at Badwater, the amazing colours of the cliffs around the Artist’s Palette, and the striking scenery of the Golden Canyon. All within an hour’s drive. So we lathered ourselves with suncream, got in the car, and ventured out to explore the delights. A word of advice: this might be the point to make sure your camera gear is top notch; ours isn’t, so what you see here is snapped on smart phones and lacking photographic aplomb. Even so, we’re sure you’ll agree that the sights of Death Valley are pretty amazing!

First, the Golden Canyon:

This sign warns against strolling through the canyon after 10am. Whoops, it was 12:06 when we set off to look about Golden Canyon. Don't fear though, we had plenty of water and wore natty hats.
This sign warns against strolling through the canyon after 10am. Whoops, it was 12:06 when we set off to look about Golden Canyon. Don’t fear though, we had plenty of water and wore natty hats.

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Then Badwater: the lowest point in America

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And finally, the Artists’ Palette, with its extraordinary juxtapositions of colour caused by different minerals in the rock formations:

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Day 17: From Mammoth Lakes to Furnace Creek

Before we set off we had a decent breakfast at Bar 53 in Mammoth Village, and although we haven’t made much of the food on our blog, we had to make an exception here, for we know our good friend Maricar would enjoy seeing the picture…

avocado, peas and mint on toast with poached eggs. A little bit eaten, sorry, the pic was an after-thought.
avocado, peas and mint on toast with poached eggs. A little bit eaten, sorry, the pic was an after-thought.

Today was a travel day, and a story of highs and lows. We left the ski resort of Mammoth Lakes, at an elevation of around 8000 feet, and made our way back to sea level, about 200 miles to the South East. Not that there is any sea here, though far from it – this is the arid landscape of Death Valley. Our destination was Furnace Creek, 190 feet below sea level.

Driving the long stretch from Lone Pine to Furnace Creek – interrupted only by the ranger station at Stovepipe Wells, the road goes on and on, through desert wilderness and occasionally down steep, winding mountain passes.

The road is long, with never a winding turn...
The road is long, with never a winding turn…

Down in Death Valley itself we actually traversed two valleys, and while we were descending, the temperature was on the rise.

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When we left Mammoth Lakes this morning, the temperature had been a cool 66 degrees fahrenheit (about 19 degrees centigrade, very familiar from home). By the time we reached our hotel, the thermometer had soared to a blistering 119 degrees (nearly 49 degrees centigrade).

just for evidence...
just for evidence…

In fact, Furnace Creek holds the world record for the highest temperature ever recorded (check that one out in the record book, Max!) – but you’d have had to be here on 10th July 1913 to experience the 134 degree heat (56.7 degrees centigrade).

The Ranch at Furnace Creek is like a little oasis, and very well set up to cater for batty Europeans who visit Death Valley in August. Surprisingly, the world famous golf course (which we view from our window) is a lush green, though there are very few people on the fairways just now.


Tomorrow we venture into the hot valley and until then, here’s a lovely sunset over Furnace.