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Musings From Death Valley National Park


Sunsets, whether early or late, are memorable at Death Valley National Park/NPS

November sun sets at 4:35 p.m. in Death Valley. Early because we’re on the eastern edge of Pacific Standard Time. It’s only 6:30 p.m., and I’m already tired of reading. All around my campsite there are others sitting in the dark. Most are sitting beside campfires. Quiet talk fills the evening along with delicious odors of cooking food. Somewhere not too far away, someone quietly plunks on a guitar.

It’s the days just before Thanksgiving, and there are lots of children skipping a few days of school. Their voices and laughter ring around the camp, and a few very small ones cry as they object to something that isn’t making them happy.

Finally, I get up, set my book aside, hang a headlamp on my cap and wander outside. Turn the light off and let my eyes adjust. Then I set off slowly drifting along in the middle of a paved camp spur road. Nearly every campsite has people sitting around flickering campfires that sometimes glare and make it a little hard to see.

Overhead the sky is full of pricks of light. Too many. I’m a city boy now, and it’s difficult to pick out much of anything familiar. I can’t even find the dippers or North Star. Maybe they’re hiding behind one of the yellow hills that surround the campground.

To the north, I spot a parade of aircraft lights at high altitude. Must be one of the airways that carry passengers in airborne aluminum tubes. This parade seems to be flowing west to east.

The southeastern sky glows and silhouettes hilltops around the camp. It has to be the nightglow of Las Vegas. Settling into the west, a slim crescent moon will soon follow the day’s sun behind the Panamint Range.

An older couple sits in a car. Reading. A young boy stirs his family’s campfire. Other families sit at tables lit with lanterns or headlamps as they eat supper. I hear voices in Spanish coming from a couple of sites. From another flows words in a language I can’t identify. In the next site I hear what I recognize is French. From a site somewhere across the campground I can hear some people singing a quiet song.

I circle back to my campsite and climb inside my little portable motel and pull out my computer and begin to type.

I’m alone. But I’m not lonely, for I’m surrounded by friends. Friends I haven’t met and probably won’t. But friends just the same. We somehow came to this place from all around the world to share an evening in a very special place. Death Valley.


I don’t believe in planning ahead. Takes a lot of the adventure out of the adventure. Besides, if you spend a little time becoming acquainted with campground neighbors, you may wind up opening all sorts of new doors. Morning brings meetings.

For example, there were Greg and Steve and their families. Old friends now living in different parts of California who have an annual reunion at Death Valley or somewhere else. It was Greg who told me about the traditional Thanksgiving dinner at Panamint Springs Resort. Steve works for CalTrans and used to be the guy who was responsible for opening the state’s portion of the Tioga Road from Lee Vining to the Yosemite park boundary. He had some adventure stories to tell.

I met them at Panamint for dinner at noon on Thanksgiving Thursday. Then a hike to a place I still have a hard time believing exists. Would you believe a tall and free-flowing waterfall in Death Valley? Yup. That’s what they tell me. Darwin Falls is the name, and it’s not a very long hike up a dry streambed just west of Panamint. Trouble is, that nasty thing called old age caught up with me. I have to admit that I went unprepared.

The Panamint Springs Resort draws a crowd for Thanksgiving/Lee Dalton

Someone said it was an easy hike, but then it turned into a scramble over some rocks that would be only slightly challenging to normal people. My bifocals really did not enjoy it. I’d left my single-vision hiking glasses back in camp along with my hiking stick crutch. Between bifocal-induced imbalance and some very slick rock, I wound up taking a nasty biff. Happily didn’t bust my camera. Unhappily, I landed right in front of a large group of people. A nasty blow to what little is left of my male pride.

Someday I’ll go back and try again. Properly prepared. I absolutely abhor the idea of having to be packed out of some place like that. Gotta preserve at least a little pride. Meanwhile, I’m nursing a pretty badly bruised right butt cheek.

Thus, I did a U-turn. But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have met the young man from India by the gas pump at Stovepipe Wells. He had just discovered that when the road sign says, Soft Shoulder, it really means it. 

So we cleared enough space for him to climb into my truck and headed to the rescue. On the way, I remarked that there seem to be a whole lot of people from India visiting Death Valley this week. His reply was, “Yes. I have seen that. But we were once a poor country and now we have money so we can afford to travel.” Then he added, “And I love America!” 

A short pull and his rental car was back on the pavement. (I was very happy to learn that law enforcement rangers in Death Valley will actually help by pulling a car in situations like this or help to change a tire. In other parks, that kind of thing is often forbidden. But here, someone who knows told me, that with no other possible help available, there’s not any other good option. Can you imagine some poor ranger having to refuse to assist someone in need who did nothing deliberately wrong?)

Then there was the little Japanese boy at Father Crowley Overlook. I watched as he and his parents and little sister walked back from the overlook. Every few feet, he’d bend down, pick up some trash, and deposit it in a couple of sandwich bags his mother was carrying. They were full.

I thanked them and inquired. He’s 8 years old and his name is Toku Tanaka. He knew that one of the requirements to become a Death Valley Junior Ranger is to pick up some trash. So that’s what he was doing. His little sister’s only 3, but Sakurako proudly showed me her collection of tissues, napkins, and other trashy trinkets.

The family has been here for father’s work for about four years. “I’m almost an American boy,” Toku told me. They’ll be returning home in just a couple of months and I bet there will be one little boy in Osaka who will proudly be wearing his Death Valley Junior Ranger badge when he goes back to school.

Gee, I almost forgot the other folks I met Wednesday morning at Harmony Borax Works. Two young men and a young woman from Lithuania. The first Lithuanians I’ve ever met. They were a bit puzzled. Didn’t have a map and were wondering where the Big Hole is located that is so far below sea level. I gave them my map and told them we were already standing at the bottom of the big hole. Then they explained that they hadn’t really planned on visiting Death Valley. But when the highway took them past it, they decided to go take a look.

It’s kinda nice to know that there other folks out there who don’t believe in always planning ahead .... I hope the suggestions I gave them made their time here a bit more enjoyable.


I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again. Our parks may well be the very best ambassadors America has. Places where we can welcome people from all around the world. And if plain ordinary Americans like you and me can just take a few moments to meet them, help them a little, and be kind to them, who knows how big a victory we may have scored for this land that we call ours. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more people from around the world could say, “And I love America?”


A few words of advice for visiting Death Valley.

Don’t waste your money by buying anything at Furnace Creek. Go to Stovepipe Wells. Regular gas was $4.21 at Furnace Creek, and only $3.09 at Stovepipe. A small bag of ice was $4.99 at Furance Creek and $2.85 at Stovepile Wells. A pint of Furnace Creek milk is just over $3, while it’s $1.49 at Stovepipe.

I remarked about that to the clerk at Stovepipe’s cash register and she said, “That’s because the Park Service regulates us. But Furnace Creek is privately owned, so they can charge as much as they can get.”

Xanterra owns the private operations Furnace Creek, which not too long ago was renamed The Oasis at Furnace Creek. They’re in the process of rebuilding the whole place. Some of the older buildings have been torn down and will be replaced. Hopefully that will include the restaurant where I had an unforgettably poor Christmas dinner a couple of years ago.

The historic Furnace Creek Inn is all fenced off and surrounded by construction equipment, too. Obviously undergoing a very major renovation.

It will be interesting to see if Xanterra’s investments here bring about any improvements. But in the meantime, use caution and hang on to your wallets. I didn’t check prices, but have been told by several people who certainly should know that things are a whole lot better over at Stovepipe Wells in the lodging category — both in price and quality.


Friday evening, a large group of Chinese moved into the campsite next to mine. Lots of young kids who speak an interesting combination of English and Chinese. But I no longer have any doubt that good happy fun sounds the same no matter what language it’s speaking.

I’ll have to ask, but it also sounds like the Chinese word for Grandpa is the same as it is in English ....

I discovered in the morning that the Chinese group jumped the campsite claim of a young couple from France who hadn’t left anything to mark possession of the site. When the young couple showed up, they managed to make peace and just moved their equipment in with the Chinese to share the site until morning. Kinda like the United Nations.


Deanna Depue is an interpreter who draws a crowd at Death Valley/Lee Dalton

Deanna Depue is a young seasonal ranger who just migrated back to Death Valley from her summer habitat in Kenai Fjiords National Park. There is a shortage of interpretive programs in Death Valley. There are only four options open each day. I tagged along with Deanna on Tuesday as she led a dozen visitors through Golden Canyon and introduced us to some of the geologic features that help make Death Valley the place it is.

Then, on Friday, she was the one who showed up to lead a group of about 25 into Mesquite Sand Dunes. Fun! I think just about all the group consisted of children traveling with their parents. Why does it seem that grownups appear to enjoy things like this even more when they are sharing it with their kids?

Deanna tapped the kids’ energy to have them race around the adults in a wild rushing circle of kid muscles representing wind-driven sand grains. When she told them the wind had stopped blowing, they all fell panting onto the dune just as sand grains really do. Then she sent the entire group — kids and parents alike — off into the dunes on a lively scavenger hunt searching for signs of animal life in the sand.

A lady accompanying Deanna told me that she and her husband, the park’s new electrician, just moved out here from Maine a few months ago. I guess she has an extra special reason to get out and explore because this is her new home. She said it’s true that in summer people who live here don’t have to run their hot water heaters. The ground becomes hot enough to nearly boil water.

One thing is sure. I’m going to have to shoot a note to the superintendent telling him that Ranger Deanna is one the park needs to hang on to.


It sure gets dark early when the sun sets at 4:30. But that opens up all sorts of possibilities. A campfire. Wandering out into the night in search of familiar stars. Just sitting alone and watching your campfire’s flames dancing. Listening. Listening to voices of people you’ll never meet and sharing for awhile their laughter.

There was a young man who came to my fire a few minutes ago and asked, “Excuse me, but perhaps you have extra woo?”

“Extra what?”

He pointed to my fire.

“Woo, extra woo. Do you have?”

The light turned on so I walked to my truck and handed him a bundle of firewood. “Wood,” I said emphasizing the sound of D.

“Ah. Woodah. Yes, woodah.” Then he hesitated. “But this too much. I pay?”

I refused and asked where he is from.

“Irvine, we go to school there.”

“Nippon?” I asked.

“Ah, no. Taiwan. Taiwan.”

“I hope you enjoy America.”

“We do. We do.”

And so, for an investment of a whopping $3.84 plus tax, I was able to enjoy the exclamations of his friends when he returned to his camp with the wood.

Well worth the investment. (But that’s the Utah price. I’m afraid to ask what firewood might cost in Furnace Creek*.)


One of the things most striking about Death Valley is its incredible changes in elevation. One moment you’re below sea level, and not long after that you’re three or four thousand feet higher. Then that is followed by another long swooping dive back to sea level or lower. Your poor ears have to work awfully hard just to keep up.


There aren’t a whole lot of interpretive offerings available right now. Deanna explained it’s because, at the moment, Death Valley is in the middle of a twice-annual transition between summer and winter seasons. Winter seasonals are returning from whatever far-flung corner of the globe they migrated to, and the summer crew is leaving for wherever the next season calls them.

Things have changed some since the days when a seasonal worked a park in summer and returned to teaching school.

Another person connected with the park, however, told me that there’s an awfully uncertain future here right now because no one knows what to expect next in the current political climate. Unfortunately, seasonal interpreters may be more of an endangered species within our parks. With Scotty’s Castle closed for repairs after that devastating flash flood two summers ago, the number of seasonal interpreters may be pegged at only about six or eight until the castle reopens — something not expected until 2020. Demands for personnel behind the visitor center desk must make it very difficult to try to meet visitors out in the park, where visitors should be meeting rangers.


Borax wagons at Harmony harken to a different era at Death Valley/Lee Dalton

At the moment, there are only four daily ranger led programs in the park. There’s the Golden Canyon hike, a Sand Dunes Ranger Talk, Badwater Ranger Talk, and a talk at Harmony Borax Works. They are all short and range from 30 to 60 minutes.

The main choices of activities in Death Valley are wandering off on your own to explore; doing a lot of driving and burning a whole lot of gasoline; sitting around the campground just soaking in the scenery and sun; or tagging along with rangers at any of those interpretive offerings.

I sampled some of all of them.


The Keane Wonder Mine just reopened after a number of years being closed due to safety concerns. Well worth the trip. It’s not far off the Beatty Road and contains, among other things, an aerial tramway that once used gravity to move tons of gold and silver ore down the mountain side from the mine to a tipple where it could be sent to a crusher and then processed with cyanide. The tramway cable and some of the ore buckets still remain on the 13 towers. Over a million dollars in gold was recovered here. An enormous fortune in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Most of the area around what was once the mine is filled with remains that are just large chunks of rusted iron. It would take a mining historian to make even a good guess what they were used for. To my way of thinking, the most interesting thing about this mine and others I’ve visited in Death Valley is simply marveling at how in the world those men were able to move heavy objects with only the tools and horse or mule powered technology available to them at the time. And that’s saying nothing at all about the environment in which they had to work.

We just don’t make men like that any more.

The ruins that remain at the Keane Wonder Mine at Death Valley tell of an age where muscles and ingenuity were used to coax valuable minerals out of the ground/Lee Dalton


At Badwater, I really enjoyed a walk not far out along the salty trail leading from the parking lot into the depths of Badwater Basin. Matthew Lamar, who had just migrated back to the park, was leading his first Badwater walk for the season. He certainly seemed to be enjoying it, and so did the 35 or so visitors who followed him. We learned about the Badwater Snail. A tiny creature about the size of the letter "o" that lives nowhere else in the world. We looked up at the sea level sign 282 feet above on the cliff face and over toward Telescope Peak, which towers to an elevation of 11,049 less than 10 miles away.

I was especially impressed by how Matthew made the young ones among us feel welcome and important as he helped them with tasks needed to become Junior Rangers. Like many other of his seasonal colleagues, Matthew has had opportunities to work in many of our finest places: Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah, Cape Hatteras, and some others.


After a quick bite of lunch back in camp, I drove out to Harmony Borax Works for the 2:30 p.m. showing of the daily story of Borax. This time, I was led — along with about 40 other visitors — by a very lively and entertaining young lady named Amber Giove. It took only a few seconds for Amber’s infectious enthusiasm to take hold of her audience as she turned a very, very dry subject (what could be more desiccating than a pile of borax?) into a tale of people who long ago ventured into this place in search of white powder.

I learned that borax was once thought to exist only in Tibet and that for centuries it was one of the most expensive and sought after minerals. She told of the Amargosa Valley rancher and his wife who accidentally learned how to identify borax and made a fairly handsome fortune leading borax prospectors to deposits of the stuff.

She shot down the tale that 20 Mule Team Borax was really hauled from Death Valley by 20 mules. Truth is, there were only 18 of the critters pulling each wagon. But there were two horses to help steer the monstrous wagons and keep the mules heading the right direction. But if you want to find out how wagon drivers managed to get the strung-out teams of draft animals pulling when they came to one of Death Valley’s sharp road curves, you’re going to have come out here and go on one of Amber’s walks.

I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it. She uses a lot of humor — much of it poking fun at herself — to tell the story.

Finally, she introduced her audience to Steven Tyng Mather, who made a fortune from borax, and shared the story of the beginnings of the National Park Service. I was surprised to learn that Mather actually was not very enthusiastic about trying to turn Death Valley into a national monument when it was first proposed. Apparently, he feared that his previous connections with this place might be taken as some kind of ethical lapse or conflict of interest and he wanted to remain above that.

Whether it was 20 mules, or 18 mules and two horses, the 20-mule-team wagons that hauled borax out of Death Valley secured a place in history/NPS


I pull out my laptop and am sitting by the fire. I go back and read what I’ve written and realize it’s awfully jumpy and disjointed. Should I edit? I pause for a moment and realize that I can hear music. Music from neighboring campsites. At this very moment there are three sources of music. From the right a bit of country western, something from over there that I can’t quite identify, and from my left what has to be music from India. None of it is loud, but it’s a very strange mixture.

Then I think, no don’t edit. Jumpy and disjointed. That’s it.

Just like the vast and varied expanses of the largest national park south of Alaska and the incredible collection of people who share it.

* Traveler footnote: To prevent the importation of nonnative insects and diseases, please don't bring firewood from out-of-state into national or state parks unless it has been heat treated or cured for at least two years. The Firewood Scout website can help you find sources of heat-treated wood in California, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

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Lee, I love your writing.  Every single story you've written for the Traveler puts me right there in the midst of it.  Nice photos, too, by the way.  I like your leading line shots of the borax wagons and the Keane Wonder Mine. Keep sharing these wonderful travel stories with us.

We love it too. A very favorite place. 3 trips so far....

I spent over 33 years in school for a month or so. I've seen it all its glory. This was from the sixties 2000 or so.  Thank you for the update moo

I love the pizza here ....they put walnuts on the pizzaa....

excellent article. Was just there for the first time this past March. Loved it. Will be back in 2018. 

Great reading i was in death valley also this past thanksgiving i used to live at wildrose station 1964 to 1971 and could tell a few stories as well!



Brings me back to the year i worked at the oasis supper club at furnace creek.85.went up behind the resort at midnight christmas eve& made my peace for the year.




Lee - I can't agree more with your feeling that it is the people you meet that make travel so special. I just made my first visit to Death Valley the first week of December. Did the "usual" hikes and thoroughly enjoyed them. However, it was not until I set up my tent at Emigrant and met Bob, a truly special and good person, who led me, and Jason, another camper, on an off trail adventure up Tucki Mountain the following day. Bob told me Death Valley was a "powerful" place, and he was right. I'm already planning a return trip this spring.

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