04/18/2011 01:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2011

Death Valley Daze, Part I

This is the first installment of a two-part series.

But oh the heavy change, now thou art gone, Now thou art gone and never must return! ~ John Milton


Photo credit: Walker Bangs

It was a spell ago -- and you can figure out the timeframe by surrounding events -- when I bickered my black VW bug north from Los Angeles to Death Valley, girlfriend Karen Goldberg at my side, a weekend of adventure ahead.

With an early start we made it to the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort for lunch, a busy outpost a couple miles off State Highway 127, just east of the southern end of Death Valley. It was a boozy place... some 600 hard-rock miners lived down the road... and the menu featured fried pupfish from the nearby Amargosa River.

We trundled north through the parched-white landscape, stopping for a bland vanilla milkshake at Death Valley Junction, where a marquee announced Marta Becket playing at the Amargosa Opera House, and a line snaked outside. We had no idea who she was, nor did we have the time, or money, to attend her evening performance. We did, however, meet a charming man from a company helping to reclaim the desert, and he shared they had plans to build several golf courses, a swimming pool, and a planned community along the Amargosa River, just down the road at Ash Meadows, and invited us for a tour, but we were anxious to get going towards our goal.

With The Grateful Dead's "Dark Star" on the radio we rode into Death Valley National Monument, best known then for the Ronald Reagan-hosted T.V show, sponsored by "20-Mule-Team Borax". At Karen's behest, we first made our way to Zabriskie Point, a must-see for the eponymous 1970 Michelangelo Antonioni film that failed to define a generation, but was suitably psychedelic for the times.


What's the point? Photo credit: Walker Bangs

The overlook was indeed cinematic, presenting a puzzle of skeletal ridges, riddled with rills and dry stream beds, stunning in its unearthly emptiness. It was terrifically windy at the crest of the outlook, and just as we were turning to leave a blast tore Karen's new Sobek blue baseball cap from her head, and down into a gully. It was getting dark, so I begged off fetching it, and it put Karen into a sour mood for the loss, or for my unwillingness.

Minutes later we pulled into the famous Inn at Furnace Creek to grab a bite, but were turned away at the dining room door because of the strict dress code, a blessing, it turned out, because as I glanced at the menu prices, it was clear the fare was beyond my meager student budget


Photo credit: Walker Bangs

Karen was famished, though. So, we slouched back to the bug, turned down the road, and pulled in to the campsite for the night, where we shared a hefty bag of gorp.

The day following we crossed the Valley and began the grind up Telescope Peak, at 11,049', highest point in the Panamint Mountains. We made it to Charcoal Kilns, at about 7,000', where the paved road ended, and weighed whether to attempt the dirt road in my ten-year-old bug with balding tires. What the Hell, and I knocked it into first and began the ascent. We crawled and banged another mile and a half, parked at the end of the road, the Mahogany Flat Campground, shouldered packs, and began the 7-mile hike to the knaggy summit.

Late afternoon we reached the top, where we could see in a single sweep Badwater, at -280 the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, and Mt. Whitney, at 14505' the highest point in the contiguous United States. We couldn't dawdle, though, as dark clouds were gathering, so we turned and stepped as fast we could down the mountain. By the time we reached the car the sun had set, and it was raining hard.

I got behind the wheel and steered like a captain in a typhoon. The storm got worse; rain hammered the roof like bullets. Pools of black water filled the road, and several times I stalled in the muck. Then the winds dialed up, and shook the car like paper, at one point almost blowing us down a cliff. "We need to stop," Karen cried out. And there, off the road, we saw some lights through the mist and pummel. I grappled the car up a spur, and there was a trailer, lit from within. "Let's see if they'll take us in until the storm dies down," I offered to Karen, who shook her head in brisk agreement.

We knocked, and a young woman opened the door, saw our soaked souls, and invited us in.
"Could we stay a little bit until the rain slows?" Karen implored.

"Of course. Have a seat. I'm Cathy. How about some wine?"

The trailer was small, cluttered and poorly lit, with a Formica table at the kitchen end. We pulled up chairs, and Cathy poured some cheap wine into paper cups. We were under a bare low-wattage light bulb, and most everything in the trailer was in shadow. But when Cathy sat down, and we started to sip, her face came into view, and I noticed what looked like a small X carved into her brow. "What's that?"

"Oh, I'm one of Charlie's girls. I burned it into my forehead to show support during the trial. He carved his to say he was "X-ing" himself from civilization. Don't worry. I didn't kill anyone. I wanted to go on both nights, but Charlie said I wasn't needed. He's a great man, though. A visionary who doesn't deserve the persecution. More wine?" And she held the twist-cap bottle over my cup.

Both Karen and I shook heads no, placing palms over the cups. I looked up on the kitchen wall and saw a rack of large carving knives hanging just behind Cathy. The rain thundered harder on the metal roof. Cathy looked up, then to us. "Boy, it's really coming can spend the night here if you want. I've got extra bedding, and the rug is pretty comfortable."

Karen and I exchanged glances. I turned to Cathy, and tried to look her in the eyes, but my gaze kept drifting upwards. "You know, we're both students and have to get back for exams. We'd love to stay and wait out the storm, but I think it best we make a go of it."
"You sure? It's pretty bad out there."

"Yeah....we've got good wheels. And it's really important we get back. We'll be fine. Thanks so much for the hospitality, though. You really saved us." And we suited up, and headed for the door.

Half-blind in the rain and darkness, I brawled the car down the mountain, thinking it the lesser of two evils. We drove straight through to dawn, and when I dropped Karen at her place I swore, "I'm never going back to Death Valley." We broke up after that weekend, and I never saw Karen again, though I heard she became an attorney, inspired in some way by Vincent Bugliosi.


Photo credit: Walker Bangs

Read part two here.