Death Valley



From Orange County to Las Vegas or Death Valley is a five-hour drive if you are smart and a little bit lucky. Otherwise it can be a grueling 8 hours or more in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the worse kind, where one minute you are doing 80 and the next minute you are sitting still.

 The first 50 of the 270 miles had taken nearly three hours and had me thinking, "I'm not sure I can do this much longer". We began discussing optional places to stop and rest. Had we not already planned to meet my son and his wife that night, I may have given up.

 Sitting still in the "free lanes" while the Fastrack lanes zoomed by at 80 miles per hour gave me time to comprehend the fraud that had taken place on a twelve mile stretch of highway where the 55 and 91 Freeways meet. This stretch has four free lanes and two toll lanes. From 3-9 PM every day, the free lanes creep along at a stop and go pace of two miles an hour, while the toll lane moves at a breakneck 80 miles an hour pace. You cannot pay at a gate; you must have a Fastrack transponder, which I don't. The cost for the toll is $4.75 for twelve miles and rising. The fraud can be understood by moving back in time and applying a simple model.

 Imagine that we had a two-lane freeway that had reached its capacity and was fast moving to over capacity where the traffic would slow to a near standstill. How could we make some money out of this situation?  Let's convert a short section of one of the lanes to toll way such that 10% of the traffic pays extra to move ahead of everyone else. The remaining lane hits 190% overcapacity and the traffic comes to a near halt. The 10% moving ahead actually exacerbates the problem because up ahead we have high-speed traffic coming together with the low speed traffic making the traffic back up along the slow lane even more. When the slow lane finally comes almost to a halt, more people start paying, so we can raise the price and add more toll lanes because moving ahead of stationary traffic becomes even more valuable. Critical to the success of the scheme is keeping the slow lane at a snails pace as often as possible.

 While the real life situation is more complicated than this, having six lanes instead of two, using double carpool/Fastrak lanes at the other end to smooth the transition, and other freeways entering in, the point is that the really serious jam begins where the toll way starts and ends where the toll way ends. It does not take a highway scientist to conclude that the toll way is causing the problem that people are paying a toll to avoid. Trust me, that this is a scam is mathematically provable. Imagine, getting a few people to pay to avoid a problem and using them to cause the problem that they are paying to avoid by avoiding it. It is highly likely that someone had this fully modeled on a computer that helped him or her discover, pull off, and maintain this con so perfectly. In the process, they even got Caltrans to sign an agreement not to construct more free lanes. In China they execute people who get caught in deals like this.

Passing through Norco in this manner involves a second challenge. Norco houses one of the world’s largest cow shit factories. For several miles along the freeway cows stand shoulder to shoulder with nothing to do but eat, shit, and wait to be slaughtered. Locals like myself know instinctively to switch the cars air conditioning to inner air before entering the stretch. Otherwise, the car smells like someone shoveled in a scoop of day old cowshit. This procedure was all the more important tonight since it took half an hour to escape the vapor-filled zone. We laughed at a few tourists who were gasping for fresh air trying to figure out who did it.

 Fortunately, the first 50 miles were the worst. The junction of highway 395 with Interstate 15 is always a welcome sight for me. Here, one leaves civilization and heads into the primitive Mojave Desert. After a truck stop meal at The Outpost, I began a relaxing 75 miles per hour average, racing through nearly deserted, arrow straight, desert highway right up to the boundary of Death Valley. 

 I have often illustrated that almost knowing (or thinking one knows) the correct answer is much worse than not knowing the answer. One has two choices to enter Death Valley from the West, by winding around up and through Wildrose Canyon or a longer drive up highway 91, which goes straight up the mountain. I had done both, but had forgotten that one should consider Wildrose canyon only during the daytime and only when there is a good reason to do so, a piece of information provided on most maps, if I had needed to look at a map.

 By the time I had realized what the next 30 miles of road was going to be I was caught in a previous investment trap and continued on up a winding, sometimes almost non existent cliff hanging road through hairpin turns above black, bottomless ravines. Off this road with a few miles of even scarier driving one can reach the ghost town of Skidoo, one of a dozen ghost towns in this region that thrived during the goal rush days in the mid nineteenth century. At one time the town housed several thousand people, had a stagecoach line, a school, a jail and a bank. History doesn't say much about Skidoo, because not much of interest ever happened there. Interestingly enough, the only widely recorded story tells us a lot about our society of 150 years ago.

 A drunk who had become distraught with the local banker who would not loan him money shot the banker to death. In the melee that followed a second citizen of Skidoo was shot by accident and also died. The drunk was eventually arrested and locked in the local jail,….but not for long.  A mob lynched him and the story might have ended there, but it gets more interesting. Two weeks later, a newsman in Los Angeles, upon hearing the story, took the stage out to Skidoo to get the story. The locals obliged the newsman by digging up the drunk's body and rehanging him for photos.  Stories like this one help me to understand other crazy things our ancestors did.

 Today, Skidoo is nothing more than a strip of bare ground strewn with century old debris and gravel streets that are barely discernable. This one story is the only history left for Skidoo. And even this may be only a legend since recently, the authenticity of this often-told story has come into question after it was discovered that another explanation for digging the guy up surfaced. It seems that upon finding that he had syphilis a local doctor wanted to examine his brain. From today's perspective the drunk and his lynchers gave Skidoo its only point of interest, and the only reason many of us still visit Skidoo. Even though it is just an empty plot of ground, being there helps jog ones imagination, like a lot of other places around Death Valley. These places have a kind of simplicity to them that is hard to find anywhere else. 

 Skidoo was a stretch of dirt and rocks for a billion years. It was a town for 20 years and it is once again a stretch of rocks and, with some debris mixed in. It is likely to remain that for another billion years since there is no longer any reason for anyone to be there longer than enough time to read about the lynching that took place. What other place has such a simple history, where the only thing worthy of note was a lynching. Surely someone must have done something else in Skidoo.  I wondered where the descendents of Skidoo are today. These people come from a place that no longer exists and has no history. If we go back far enough I suppose we all do.  That's another thing about Skidoo; it gives one a chance and a place to ponder such questions. (More about Skidoo at

 We pulled over near the crest not far from Skidoo and stood outside in the cool air. A cold black sky was breath taking filled with a billion stars like I had not seen in years. We picked out constellations one by one and viewed the Milky Way. I wanted to stand there all night and just stare, hardly remembering that four hours earlier I had sat still on a jammed, pollution filled freeway in San Bernadino, where the sky comprised a smoky gray smog without a single visible star.

 Death Valley is one of my favorite places in the United States to hang out, though I have never understood why. I have been to Death Valley at least a dozen times and will never tire of coming.  Maybe it's because it is a place of mystery, a place that seems comprehendible, where meditation and imagination is set free. The place gets less than a half-inch of rain each year and is so hot in the summer that it can be outright dangerous. At Stovepipe wells, one of the two commercialized areas, a giant thermometer registers the temperature. German tourists come here in the summer to have their photos made in front of a 50 degree centigrade reading. That is 122 degrees Fahrenheit. The national park stretches over a hundred miles and includes both the lowest point in the Western hemisphere and one of the highest, Telescope peak at 11,000 feet, with a sweeping panorama of salt flats and magnificent desolation. I believe that it has more miles of dirt roads leading to nowhere in particular than the entire state of Tennessee.

 We passed through Stovepipe Wells and on to our destination of Furnace Creek where at nearly midnight we joined forces with another generation of the family, Jim Junior and Joan, who had driven over from Las Vegas, another part of their vacation. In three days we hit about a third of my favorite sites, deliberately sticking to a relaxed pace.

Looking out from Dante's View over the Valley Below


Sweeping views of the valley and magnificent scenery are provided from Zabriski Point, Dante's view, and Hellsgate. Great hiking is everywhere, the most civilized being well marked canyons, like Mosaic Canyon, Golden Canyon, and others whose names tell you what to expect. The Salt Flats at Badwater offer a nice window into some of nature’s desperate survival struggles. A zillion years ago saw a sea here with thriving plants and animals of all types. What remains is a huge salt flat and a puddle of water where a few tiny fish struggle to keep their species alive. A plant sticks out here and there in a heroic attempt to live. Badwater is a simple place where the only thing for tourists to do is to have their picture made in front of a sign that says this is lowest point on dry earth, 272 feet below sea level. Consequently, the line of tourists waiting their turn at the sign makes this one of the most crowded places in Death Valley.  There are more Japanese per square foot at the Badwater sign than in Tokyo.

 Another sign at Badwater states that the park service has undertaken a project to improve the place. “How could this be improved?” If they allowed the tourists to decide, they  would probably add a McDonalds or a Pizza Hut. There is one other thing that tourists do at Badwater. They stumble over the signs near the edge of the puddle to see if they can get a look at the fish as if they had never seen a fish. The signs say "PLEASE HELP PRESERVE THIS ENDANGERED SPECIES BY NOT PASSING THIS POINT OR APPROACHING THE EDGE OF THE WATER, WHICH DAMAGES THE FRAGILE ENVIRONMENT". 

 Regardless of the triteness or simplicity of an experience, tourists will line up to do it if it is listed in a booklet as an attraction, especially if it happens at a designated time. I call this tourist attraction genre the STARR (Scheduled Tourist Attraction Roundup Resource) attraction. Schedule an event that will take place at a specific time, any event where tourists go. Tourists will come, stand around, line up, and wait for it, no matter how trite the event is.  It is a simple, effective technique to round up tourists, who are always making sure they see what they are supposed to see so they can say they saw it. In Krakow, Poland, for example, is a church that has a special, highly publicized alterpiece opening ceremony at 12 noon each day. Tourists come from all around, wait in line, and jockey for positions to see two nuns come out and open doors of the alterpiece. The closest thing to this in Death Valley is an “afternoon tea” and the Furnace Creek Inn each day at 4 P.M. Listing what tourists really should do in Death Valley is easy. Drive around a lot, get out and walk a lot, meditate, and let ones imagination run wild. 


Here one comes closest to being able to imagine some of the hardships and challenges that 19th century Americans encountered and conquered. Try and imagine crossing this in a horse drawn wagon. I was bitching about an eight-hour drive in an air-conditioned car over a good highway. In the mid 1800's a group of people were trapped in Death Valley because of a lack of survival and geographic knowledge. Two badly neglected great American heroes, Rogers and Manly, in a near hopeless venture made it to Los Angeles on foot in about three weeks and returned with a rescue party to lead the rest of the group to safety.

 Manly is honored through Manly Peak and Lake Manly. Rogers has not rated that much, apparently because Manly wrote a historical account of the whole thing. Why are  there no statues honoring these great American heroes? How can we keep naming highways, buildings and bridges after politicians and not name a single place in Death Valley after such brave men? Practically everything in Death Valley is named after the Devil, The Devil's Golf course, The Devils Cornfield, Hellsgate, etc.  I salute Manly and Rogers as two of the greatest American heroes, and hope that some day Furnace Creek will be renamed to Roger’s and Manly’s Creek .

Another group of heroes are the guys who worked out a way to move tons of borax out of Death Valley all the way to Los Angeles on wagons. Meeting the man who saw the borax, had a vision and hooked up 20 mules (actually 18 mules and two horses in front) to two wagonloads and a tank of water, drove them fifty miles over a mountain and still made a profit would be a real hoot. Death Valley is a good place to see what people at the extreme can achieve. Seeing these people's challenges and conquests causes me to look for the equivalent people in today’s society. To be as brave and committed as any one of them has always been my dream.

 Perhaps what I like best about Death Valley is that I always come away with new inspirations and ideas about life.  We spent a morning walking the sand dunes.  To fully appreciate Death Valley requires one to move somewhat out of the comfort zone. I learned a valuable and poinquent lesson about life while walking these Sand dunes. Pauline and I are in good physical condition, but certainly with much room to improve. I believe that health and fitness are choices for most of us and not something that happens to us.  I have been planning, but just planning a major fitness program, and I have needed a motivator to move me off the starting line. I got it in Death Valley, where I could see where I was on the fitness scale and what it does to my ability to enjoy what the universe offers me.

From the crest of a fifty-foot dune I could see how much beauty and pleasure those who quit after the twenty-foot dune missed. I could only guess what pleasure and beauty was available to people who made it up the 100 foot crests. I had convinced myself that by the time I would make it there I would be too exhausted to enjoy it.  I began to wonder how long it would be before the ADA people would insist on installing escalators up the dunes.  By the end of that day I had found the motivator I needed. I wanted to be able to accept all of the beauty and pleasure the universe has to offer me and not let a stupid decision to be less than fit stand in the way. 

One morning placed us in the Ghost town of Rhyolite, which is just north of Death Valley near the California border. Rhyolite has a truly fascinating history, and they never even lynched anybody. They simply pulled off one of the biggest scams in the region, like an early 20th century Enron or dot COM bubble. Rhyolite was touted to become the "hub of the west". Many millions of dollars were poured into building this town that grew to over 10,000 people. They even had their own suburb town, called Bullfrog, which was large enough to have its own railroad station.

 Rhyolite developers threw Dot Com-like champagne parties and imported food delicacies and expensive crystal from abroad. In the end scarcely a million dollars in gold was mined. Rhyolite has half dozen buildings still standing and even a few inhabitants. An artist's group has selected this as a site to do outdoor art and the collection is worthy of a visit.

The Last Supper with The Madonna in the Background


Starting at Rhyolite is a 26 mile one way drive through Titus Canyon back into Death Valley. The drive is well worth the few hours it takes, though not easy on a car. Before I learned how to do it, my breaks were smoking and fading by the time I hit the end of the drive.  Along this drive one encounters the remains of Leadfield, another scam town not quite as important as Ryholite. They never found mineable lead at Leadville, the thing being a scam from the outset.  The drive takes one high in the mountains offering panoramic views and narrow canyons with beautiful rock foundations and ancient petroglyphs.

Another great scenic drive is Artist's Canyon, a one way seven-mile drive through a natural palette of colors made possible by a variety of chemical oxides that stain the rocks and dirt. Many tourists just drive through without leaving the comfort of the car, which is okay. That takes some of the traffic off the great footpaths leading into the hills. Along these paths others cannot resist the temptation at getting into the act with nature. They stack rocks into formations with each new hiker adding a stone to an already teetering formation. This is not exactly what John Muir would have recommended, but it does beat graffiti.  When tourists run out of tourist entertainment they make their own.


Death Valley has many other attractions like Ube Hebe crater, The old Borax factory, Salt Springs, Scotty's castle, the Furnace Creek Inn, Twenty Mule Team canyon, Natural Bridge and so on. If one has enough imagination, four or five days are just enough time for a good visit.

 Heading home, we took the more sensible Highway 91 zooming over the mountain at 80 miles per hour. Between here and civilization are many ghost towns worth a brief visit for romantics like myself. Some of these require a four-wheeler and a few are more easily accessible. Panamint City, Clair’s camp, Garlock, Ballarat, Keeler, and Cerro Gordo are just a few. Trona, Red Mountain, Keeler, Johanisburg, and Randsburg are still alive, though mostly gone. We stopped in Trona for coffee. This town of about 500 is still here because a large chemical company continues to work the salt flats, with huge pipes, processing equipment and conveyors loading chemicals onto rail cars. Rows of company owned houses line several streets. One thing striking about most towns like Trona is that there seems to be trash and rusting junk everywhere, along the roads and in the yards. Everything seems run down and dirty. Driving past a city hall, a high school, and three churches, we stopped at three different stores looking for coffee only to find them boarded up. I wondered what it would be like to grow up in a place like this, a smelly, dirty, and a hundred miles from almost anything town. As soon as we hit the city limits, the desert became beautiful again. Why would the Tronians do this to such a previously beautiful place?

 I knew I was coming back into civilization when I approached a stand still line of cars near Kramer's Junction on Highway 395.  A faulty traffic light a mile ahead was passing only one car at a time through the one and only real junction in this part of the Mojave. I am always amazed by the mentality of some motorists. How we can allow such imbeciles loose on a highway with two tons of high-speed steel is beyond me.  It only took one guy in an SUV to spot an old dirt road paralleling Highway 395 along an old fencerow. Within minutes we had a stream of SUV's rolling down the dirt road passing all the civilized drivers who were waiting their turn to get past the faulty light. Now what can be going on in these idiot minds? It is clear that we are approaching a small town. This dirt road is going to become non-existent pretty soon and all these guys will need to get back onto the highway. It reminded me of the toll way scam, except these guys were not even paying a toll. I am absolutely amazed that one of those who had waited for an hour to get by the faulty traffic light did not shoot one of the bastards in the line squeezing back onto the highway. Their ingenious deed, like the toll way scam, was a major factor in making the situation much worse than it already was. What makes a motorist conclude that he should be allowed to pass everyone else in line?

The drive home took about six hours, a meager price to pay for a weekend in such a magnificent place. And I didn't have to go back to rescue the rest of my family or shoot one of the idiot drivers on the highway.