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The Unexpected Pleasures Death Valley

In winter, America’s most forbidding national park blooms with surprises. Here’s a traveler’s guide to uncovering its best

By Andrew McCarthy

Outside, the air is crisp. The nearly deserted crossroads is dark and silent. The Milky Way has splayed itself across the black sky. But inside the fading theater, seated in the fourth row, I’m waiting in the dimmed lights for the next dance number to begin. Nearly a dozen other patrons, looking more like scruffy desert rats than ballet aficionados, wait patiently in the dark. When the lights come up, a long figure in tutu and point shoes begins to twirl before a hand painted backdrop to canned music piped out over a speaker with a blown woofer. When the brief number ends, the man beside me with a long beard and mesh baseball cap applauds with enthusiasm. This is not what I expected from Death Valley.

The solo performance in the lavishly painted Amargosa Opera House, beside the downtrodden adobe motel in the arid eastern California desert is not the only surprise I encounter on a trip to one of America’s least visited National Parks. The forbidding name alone probably keeps as many people away from Death Valley as the infamous summer heat, where in July 1913, a global record temperature of 134 degrees was recorded on the valley floor. Oscar Denton, a caretaker at the time observed, “It was so hot that a swallow in full flight dropped to the earth dead.”

Home to the Timbisha Indians for a millennium, it was lost gold prospectors making their way west who dubbed it Death Valley in 1849. The discovery in the late 19th Century of borax, the “white gold of the desert,” led people to try and carve out an existence here.

But a visit in midwinter reveals a surprisingly inviting expanse of roughly three million acres. Barbara Taylor, a Death Valley resident for twenty years who works in park’s lone post office sums things up, “the summers are tough, but, man, I love the winters.” Wildflowers bloom in abundance (there is talk of a “Super-bloom” this spring) and median temperatures average in the high 70’s late into April.

The center of life, such as it is in Death Valley, is huddled around Furnace Creek (population 24 in 2010). A smattering of buildings, as well as the surprisingly upscale Inn at Furnace Creek, meet life’s basic needs, all tucked into an oasis of palm and mesquite trees. A predawn amble out into the valley floor begins to reveal the magnitude of the vastness. With no tress away from the oasis, the scope and distances become impossible to judge. An hour walk leaves me disoriented and far off course as the morning sun hits 9,000-foot Wildrose Peak.

On the road south, Badwater Basin is North America’s lowest point at 282 feet below sea level. Here the wind rips across the exposed valley floor covered in a shimmering crust of white salt, nearly blinding in the midday sun. Beside the road, a few Japanese tourists snap selfies. (Death Valley sees far more foreign visitors than Americans.).

The misconception of monotony and sameness in the desert is quickly obliterated in Death Valley. The light along roads such as Artists Drive paints cliffs all shades of gold and red, as well as blue and green. A four-wheel trek through Tutus Canyon in the Grapevine Mountains takes me past ghost towns and along harrowing ridges. While on a hike up into a winding trail through the smooth rock of Mosaic Canyon, I rest on a large boulder, and toss one pebble after another, my mind cycling down in a way it rarely does at home, settling into a desert rhythm.

North out of Furnace Creek the road slices over harsh earth. The Funeral Mountains rise to the east, and far off, below the foothills of the Cottonwood Mountains in the west, the wind swirls dust and sand high into the air, obscuring the afternoon sun, casting the valley in an eerie hue, like a faded, old time Wild West photo. Other than the fine tarmac, little has changed here in centuries.

The road tracks west and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes take over the widest part of the valley. Wind and geography have conspired to trap sand into Sahara-like dunes covering an area of fourteen square miles. Surface temperatures can reach 200 degrees but on this winter day the shifting sand is cool under my bare feet.

Just beyond the dunes, Stovepipe Wells was the center of life in Death Valley until things shifted to Furnace Creek nearly a century ago. There’s still a saloon and small motel. As elsewhere in the valley, an almost oppressive stillness descends whenever I stop moving. From a rocking chair outside the gas station/general store, I watch a lone raven circle in the shadow of Tucki Mountain.

The road then rises from the valley floor and the desert grows more obviously fertile, brush clutters the hills. The road crests at nearly 5,000 feet, before plunging into a steep grade. Because the vista is so vast along the narrow, diving, twisting road, and the perspective changing so drastically, the sensation is that the earth, not the car, is racing along. It is as if playing a live action video game. The effect is disorienting, dizzying, thrilling.

The Panamint Valley comes into view below, along with the single string of the distant road cutting through it. The valley floor is flat and caked. When I stop my car and step out, only a faint breeze blows across the basin. Huge, undulating mounds of sand, similar to the Mesquite dunes, gather at the north end of the valley. The winter sun shines down. There is nowhere to hide. If possible, this place feels even wilder, more remote, more forbidding, more exciting than other parts of the park I’d visited. Up ahead, Panamint Springs sit amid an oasis as the road begins to climb up from the valley to the far western reach of the park.

It is a difficult place to make your stand, but that’s what Ben Cassell, along with his wife and two young, homeschooled children have done—running a small hotel under the relief of familiar palm and mesquite.

“You’re on your own out here,” Cassell tells me, stating the obvious. He sports a long ponytail, an Indiana Jones style hat, and a gleam in his eye. His clothes, like everything here, are dust covered. “It’s wilderness. It can kill you. There’s something untamable in it. I like it.”

Speaking with Cassell reminds me of the great Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton’s line on the rewards of desert life, “There is a keen enjoyment in a mere animal existence.”

Desert dwellers, as well as travelers, have always relied on each other for survival, and in Death Valley it is no different. While filled with loners and misfits, the people I meet are frank and cordial. When I say as much to Cassell, he grins. “Oh, I’m an extrovert all right, but I do like my fellow man best when they’re a little spread out.”

It’s a sentiment I hear repeatedly. “You gotta be comfortable in your own skin,” says Gary Bryant, who’s spent the past twenty-five years in Death Valley. “Mostly what I like about it is the distance between here and there.” And it is the sheer vastness, at first so baffling, even frightening, that begins to comfort. The desert is nowhere to go looking for distraction.

None of which (or perhaps, all of which) prepares me for what goes on at the Amargosa Opera House.

In 1967, professional ballet dancer, Marta Becket’s car broke down near Death Valley Junction. She came upon a decrepit recreation hall and motel, built around a Mexican style courtyard. She looked no further. Marta set about repairs, hand painted every inch of the theater in mindboggling murals, and for forty years performed in the space three time a week—audience or not.

After Marta—now 92—retired several years ago, it looked to be the end. But Jenna McClintock, who as a child had been inspired to peruse a career in dance after seeing Marta perform here on a family vacation, came back to thank Marta. She decided to stay, and took up the mantel. And it is Jenna who I sit in the audience on a chilly winter evening and see perform Marta’s original ballets. There is an improbable dignity to it all; a lack of irony the desert demands.

After the performance, Jenna is buoyant, and Marta, sitting in the front row as she often does, grins in pride. The dozen other audience members file out and I wonder where they came from, how far they have traveled to get here, how many times they have seen this performance. I walk out, and under the Milky Way, and follow them back into the desert.

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