Early settlers on their way to California, ran the gauntlet of Death Valley to avoid battling the snow storms of the Sierra Nevada Range, which blocked their path to the west. The choice must have been a difficult one. The valley is pleasant this time of the year, but even today, with temperatures hovering around the low twenties Celsius and the sun taking a narrow arc in the northern skies, the heat shimmer above the salt pans was enough to make one think twice about any long walks.
Evidence of the effects of the hand of man on this valley is mercifully slight. Two or three small ruined mine sites can be seen from the road. The rest of the valley has a truly wilderness feel.
Our drives through the Nevada and California deserts over the past couple of days have racked up significant miles. However, the scenery is exciting enough to maintain interest. Today’s drive included a salt pan that is 282 feet below sea level, Zabriskie Point (of long-forgotten movie fame) with its magical golden waves of rock and Ubehebe Crater, 500 feet deep and ½ mile from rim to rim. Loses a lot in description, but our jaws have gravel rash.
Tonight we are in the ‘almost frontier’ town of Beatty, Nevada. Like many desert towns on this side of the Nevada/California border, Beatty’s main street is a dusty array of Hotel/Motel/Saloon/Casinos. Gambling is probably the only way small towns like this can survive in the desert. Alternatively, there are ‘red light ranches’ on the outskirts of town that boast truck parking?
With an early start and the good roads, the million tourists that visit the valley every year can now escape back to the sanctuary of the chain motels that line the interstates to the south, rather than overnight in the few small towns like Beatty that can be reached from the National Park. We are a little slower than most and will return to the valley tomorrow.
What might the hardy souls who survived the trek across Death Valley have thought as they finally dragged themselves to the top of the pass through the Tehachapi Mountains and caught sight of the Southern California Valley? Behind them lay some of the most inhospitable and dangerous desert areas on earth. Before them was a land of plenty, that today, as we crested the same pass, was such a lush green that it reminded us of Ireland and England.
Back in the valley, our last day in the desert was overcast and grey. In some ways the weather enhanced the mystery that hung around the two ghost towns that we explored.
Rhyolite, on the Nevada side of the state line, once had a promising future. A grand stone railway station is still fairly well intact at the top of the town’s deserted main street. Several gutted two-storey stone edifices still stand amongst the remnants of lesser structures that lined the street until the final demise of the town in the first decade of the last century. Every town like this has its ‘hang on’ character (s). The couple who seem to have decided to see out their lives in this long- dead desert township were scuffling around outside their ruined home as we explored. Imagine your caricature of a ghost town character and multiply by two. Yep, that’s them.
Ballarat CA, our second ghost town of the day, was named after its much larger sister city in Australia. In its heyday – 1878, Ballarat CA exported $1M in gold. With a population of 500 souls, 3 hotels, seven saloons, post office and school, the future must have looked rosy for the good folk of Ballarat CA. Sadly, by the end of the century, the gold was gone. When the post office closed in 1902, the town disappeared off the map. Ballarat’s ‘hang-on’ character was ‘Seldom Seen Slim’. Mr. Slim finally gave up the ghost in 1968 and is buried in the old town’s ‘boot hill’. One has to wonder who buried him. Even in 1968, this place would have been a long way from anywhere!
The town of Trona was also on our path today. It boasts the largest borax mine in the world, and we lunched today in a “Rest Area” between the borax “field” and the chemical plant which processes it. You’d have to see it to appreciate the “view”.
Memories of the hardy pioneers who braved the deserts of Arizona, Nevada and Southern California were in our minds as we drove down onto the Southern Valley near Bakersfield. Today, their path would have been blocked by the hundreds of wind generators that stand sentinel along the ridges of the Tehachapi Mountains. If they descended into the valley today, they would find a densely-populated, rich agricultural area that is the ‘food basket’ of America, with orange groves, vineyards, cattle feed lots and vegetable farms that can supply the northern markets with fresh veges even in the depths of winter.