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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

Chapter 26:  ghost bedroom
Death Valley National Monument, California

You wonder how people ever lived here. How did they? In what kind of delirium? Out here the planet has been cooked and scraped to the bone. Even now in the spring the sun rises and it's all over: it's like being in an oven. It doesn't seem possible to be in it for long.

Golden Canyon runs into Death Valley from the east. Coulter and I walked up into it in the afternoon, with the tourists. It was very hot; we found a patch of shade and ate dates that we had bought at the ranch.

A big spring of water comes into Death Valley and runs down Furnace Creek; it supplies two hotels and a date-palm ranch. The hotels are pale stucco roofed with pot tiles; in style they fall somewhere between Moorish Spain and rococo Italy, and the effect of these in the bleached violence of the driest place on the North American continent is the same as if one had cut out a photo of the Italian Riviera and pasted it on a mural of a gigantic gravel pit.

The dates were very good. I thought to myself: this is what Bedouins carry in their pack saddles. In the Arabian Empty Quarter one can live for weeks on the likes of these. So I must have felt for a moment there something like Lawrence of Arabia: dashing, heroic, unpredictable, with a blue gleam in the eye. Perhaps this explains what happened later on.

Golden Canyon is entirely yellow. In the right light it is spectacular, like heavy brushed gold, though the texture of the place can be alarming. After a while out here one recognizes lake bed deposits on sight; fine-ground and as softly variously colored as chalk dust. These yellow hills are all lake bed stuff, over five thousand feet of sandstones, shales, and siltstones, some layers suffused with borax, all of it laid down in the bottom of a desert lake that filled and dried and filled and dried over and over again for three million years. Then the lake deposits were lifted and heaved at an angle, like someone jacking a car up from one side. The result looks more or less like eroded hills of yellow chalk or plaster of Paris, something between these two in hardness, and their surfaces are cracked where they have wetted and dried. Nothing grows on them.

After we had walked up-canyon with the tourists for half an hour we caught each other's eye and escaped sideways into a narrow wash. There we hustled along in the yellow emptiness. Footprints showed that people had come in here before. Soon we were beyond footprints, moving upward in a narrowing steepening defile. At last we squeezed ourselves by knees and elbows up an almost vertical cleft in the yellowness, Coult clambering ahead of me, then overhead, the climb becoming, quite suddenly, vertical, and suddenly terrifying enough that I lifted our general ban on cusswords; yelling the P word and the S word and the F word and some others for all we were worth we scrabbled and clawed and heaved until we emerged on our bellies onto the high country.

Along the ridge of this high country there was a trail. We followed the trail through more yellow eroded country until it crossed the graveled bed of a wash. There we caught each other's eye, again. The trail went one way, the wash went another; we took the wash. We knew the pattern of the country well enough by then to know that wash would lead to canyon and canyon would lead us back to Death Valley, so we needed no signposts; we went off downhill with our feet crunching in the wash gravel.

There was not a plant growing anywhere, except for the odd bush of desert holly. We passed half a dozen of these bushes during the entire afternoon. One of them was infested with ants; the others were not.

Desert holly is a saltbush, another of the hardy group that includes the four-winged saltbush, shadscale, all-scale, salt sage, and so on, all members of a plant family related to garden spinach; but the saltbush tribe has made a specialty of the most arid ground. Not just dry ground, but earth that is chemically forbidding; soils fouled with salt, alkali. And desert holly seems to be the hardiest of this hardy bunch. Like the others, it has quantities of papery seed. Unlike the others its leaves are large, flattish and thick and gray, warped and curled, it seems, by heat and salt, and they do look something like holly leaves, cast in a kind of velvety silver.

It was still very hot; now and then we stopped to eat dates and drink water. We began to see mine shafts pecked in the walls around us. We discovered that it was cooler in the mine shafts than in the open, and we made a habit of sitting in there to cool off.

Prospecting and mining have followed a route through the desert that is something like a roller coaster, as if the only possible scenario were extravagance of boom and bust. In the early 1800s, gold and silver were king around here. When the Panamint boom crashed in 1877, that was that for a while. In the 1880s borax began to be hauled from the valley to Mojave by the famous twenty-mule teams, but gold and silver got interesting again in the first decade of this century, and gold was found and mined at Skidoo, Chloride Cliff, and Rhyolite, but these camps closed down in the nationwide panic of 1907. Talc mining started up after World War II, and is still going on here, and the mines themselves are just as raw, noxious, and untidy as any mines ever were -- to the chagrin of the Park Service, which prefers mines (all mines, evidently) to be objects of nostalgia. Death Valley is still open for mining and prospecting now. You are welcome to come and stake your claim.

After an hour or two coming down that wash we saw several tempting dark mine openings up a little side gully. When we worked our way up toward them, we were in the ghost bedroom before we knew it.

It was really the skeleton of a bedroom.

There were three mine shafts there; the deepest went twelve feet through tilted beds of yellow stone. There was no bush or stick or fragment of vegetation of any kind. Not even a desert holly.

There was deep blue sky and yellow rock. On a room-sized level place beside an eroded gully were two iron bedsteads, with bedsprings.

That's all.

Nothing else.

We stood there.

"It's a ghost bedroom," we both said, at the same time.

***

Mining being what it is and was, ghost towns are all over the desert. Death Valley has several. When I first came out here, the words "ghost town" had the power to send a little shiver up the backbone, and I'd go out of my way to see one; there was excitement when I first sighted rubble, but those days are gone. Ghost towns are common as dust, for one thing. They are the discarded packagings of hope. They have been picked over, vandalized, generally left to flap and weather and collapse. They tend to be more depressing than interesting unless they've been touristed up, in which case they're commercial and not to be trusted to be true. Between one and another we've seen foundation stones of chapels and flophouses, streets paved with mine tailings, crumbling walls made of rum bottles cemented together, pieces of twisted iron half-dissolved by bullet holes, heaps of cans blackened with rust, fragments of Model T Fords, iron rims of wagon wheels, old signposts with a few letters: L EDV OST-OFFICE and the like, and bedsprings (bedsprings are durable) and broken glass all over the place. It's not hard to do forensics on the likes of this: back then around here it wasn't so much the thunder of hoofbeats as the plockety-plock of burro hooves; there were a few audacious promoters and hoodwinkers, they built Mediterranean fantasies; mostly there were unshaven men with bloodshot eyes, men wearing battered hats, men who didn't stay too long or make too much of anything.

Ghost Car:  Death Valley National Monument, California

In the ghost bedroom there was yellow naked rock. There were three holes pecked into the rock and two bedsteads under the terrible sky. The answer is: they lived like this.

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