Sunday, November 22, 2015

Extremes, Contrasts and Thanksgiving

Death Valley,   the land of great extremes, in temperature and elevation.  This desolate land has been the home of home of the Timbisha Shoshone,  the 49ers of the last American gold Rush, and the Borax 20 Mule team. These folks conquered her harsh environment  taking her riches of millions in  silver and  in  tons of salt and Borax.  The photos display  the  beauty of the barrenness luring  the traveler to challenge the death defying landscape..

Who were the original 49ers?

The thousands of people who flocked westward to the gold fields in 1849 came to be known as California Forty-Niners. During the fall of 1849 many wagons remained in the vicinity of Salt Lake City because it was too late in the year to risk crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains. Most continued along the Old Spanish Trail led by Captain Jefferson Hunt. A number of others decided to try a relatively unknown route because it might shorten their trip by as much as 500 miles. However, as they continued across desert and mountains, they found their route becoming increasingly difficult. Water sources became scarce and more distant and forage food for their animals was inadequate. Yet they continued resolutely westward, hoping to be nearing their goal.
Then, as they descended into a deep valley, they were dismayed to see their course blocked by a high range of mountains. Most of the parties located escape routes from the valley, but the desperate condition of the Bennett and Arcan families prevented them from continuing. They killed some of their oxen for food and burned their wagons to cure the meat.
 William Lewis Manley and John Rogers then courageously set out on foot to find help. After traveling 250 miles across uncharted mountains and desert, they found supplies at a ranch outpost near the San Fernando Valley. They promptly retraced their route back to the trapped families and then led them out to safety. This heroic rescue stands as lasting tribute to the indomitable spirit of these hardy pioneers
 As they stood on a high mountain peak in the Panamint Range overlooking the scene of much trial and suffering where that they had just left, they spoke their uppermost thought - "Good bye Death Valley". And thus the valley received its name.
In 2007, a Monument Headstone was Dedicated by the Death Valley '49ers in memory Of California’s unsung hero, John H. Rogers. The monument is located at Merced Cemetery District in Merced, California.

Death Valley Twenty Mule Teams

20 Mule Team
For many people, nothing symbolizes Death Valley more than the famous Twenty Mule Teams. These "big teams" pulled massive wagons hauling borax from the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek to the railhead near Mojave, a grueling 165 mile, ten day trip across primitive roads. Although the teams only ran for six years--1883 to 1889--they have made an enduring impression of the Old West. This is primarily due to a successful advertising campaign promoting 20-Mule-Team Borax Soap and the long-running Death Valley Days radio and television program. Today the twenty mule teams are only a fond memory, but you may see two of the last remaining wagons here in Death Valley. One is in front of the Furnace Creek Ranch and the other is at Harmony Borax Works.
Muleskinner and Swamper with Twenty Mule Team Wagon
Imagine a conversation with a Twenty Mule Team muleskinner...
I’m a muleskinner, proud to be one and good at my job. I don’t skin mules--I drive ‘em, that’s what muleskinner means. You may not know it, but mules is the smartest things on 4 feet. Speakin’ of smart, I work for a real smart man named Coleman who owns the Harmony Borax Works right here in Death Valley. He’d seen some muleskinners drivin’ 8 or 12 mules at a time and they was haulin’ some pretty heavy loads, so ole man Coleman he thinks to himself, if 8 mules can pull 10 tons and 12 can pull twice that, it stands to reason that if you hook 20 mules up and build bigger wagons, them mules should be able to pull nigh unto 40 tons. So that’s what Coleman did. Shelled out about $900 for each of 10 wagons, 16 feet by 4 feet by 6 feet deep. Durn things weigh 7800 pounds empty--36 1/2 tons loaded. And them wheels! Them back wheels is 7 feet tall, front ones is 5 feet. Each one weighs 1000 pounds--takes me and 4 more good-sized men to change one of ‘em. Funny, even though it’s 1888 and we’ve been haulin’ borax outta here for almost 5 years--dang near 10,000 tons--not one of them wagons has broke down yet. Wheels do ‘cause they take an awful beatin’ in the desert, but them wagons was made real good. They’ll roll forever.
So anyways, I’m meanin’ to tell you what my job is like; it ain’t all fun. I’m what’s called a "long-line skinner" ‘cause there’s an 80-foot chain runnin’ the length of the 165 miles of desert from here to the train depot in Mojave. Bennett’s Well is 26 miles south of Harmony, then Mesquite Well, Lone Willow Spring 53 miles later on, Granite Well, Blackwater Well, and 50 miles later is Mojave. Considerin’ the team can only travel at most 17 miles a day, you can see why I gotta carry enough water for everybody. Of course, I don’t drive from June to September--too dang hot, but even so it sometimes gets up to 125 out here. Without that water wagon we’d all be parched up like that skinner who died ‘cause his head cracked open from the heat. See, I told you it ain’t all fun.
Well, me and my swamper--he’s the one who kinda helps me by cookin’, sand-scrubin’ the dishes, and pullin’ on the hand-brake when we get rollin’ downhill a mite too fast--we take off from Harmony when the mornin’ star comes up. I hear a lotta skinners just aswearin’ and carryin’ on to get their mules goin’; well, if you’re good like me you can move ‘em out just by callin’ their names real quiet-like. Not far south of Harmony we hit some mighty unfriendly territory. I’ll tell you right out, I don’t envy them Chinese laborers who had to take sledgehammers to beat down them sharp salt spears out there to build me a road. All they got was $1.25 a day for doin’ that. My swamper he gets $2.00 a day and me, I get $4.00 a day. See, I said I did my job good--you don’t get money like that for bein’ a nobody.
Anyways, we get to Bennett’s Well on the second day out and refill that iron water wagon (one made outta wood would’ve dried up and fallen apart in this heat as soon as it got empty). When we get up to Windy Gap there’s some mighty tight corners I gotta maneuver around. Now I’ll tell you just how smart my mules is: it’s one thing drivin’ along a straight road; it’s a whole nother thing turnin’ corners on a mountain pass. My 2 lead mules, both mares, are about 80 feet ahead of me--so far away I can’t even begin to use my 9-foot long whip on ‘em. I’ve been known to throw pebbles at ‘em to get their attention. Aim’s good too. Back to gettin’ around corners. The next 5 pairs of mules are my "swing teams", they ain’t real smart, they just know their names and what ‘pull’ and ‘stop’ means. Now the next 3 sets of mules behind the swings are my "pointers". These mules are trained special to jump over that 80-foot chain and side-step away from the curve to keep that chain tight and my wagons goin’ ‘round that corner right. I know most folks can’t see in their mind’s eye what in blazes I’m talkin’ about, so I’ll draw it out for you.
Next comes the 2 big horses. They’re strong enough to start my wagons rollin’, but that’s all they’re good for. A dumb mule (and I ain’t seen one yet) is a whole lot smarter than a smart horse. When the goin’ gets rough, I ride on the "nigh wheeler" or way down. Sometimes I meet ‘em in the durndest places, and I never did figure out why the empty wagon has the right of way. Don’t make no sense.
Speakin’ of no sense--I hear rumors about what a wild bunch us skinners are, just adrinkin’ and agamblin’ and who knows what. Well now, ain’t that bright. Here I am, in charge of 2 lives, 18 mules that cost a pretty penny, 2 horses, and $15,000 worth of borax belongin’ to Coleman and folks say I’m wild. I doubt ole man Coleman would trust his money to someone who ain’t got a lick of sense.
Well, had another pretty fair trip--got into Mojave just about 3 pm on the 10th day. Swamper and me got along okay, mainly ‘cause when he looked like he was rarin’ up to gab I gave him that "I ain’t listenin’ to no swamper" look. He knows his place. I know my place too. Right here haulin’ borax outta Death Valley. Ain’t no other place I want to be, no other job I want to be doin’.
Below is the entrance to Mosaic Canyon, one of the many  displays of nature's power and glory. As I hiked  into the canyon depths, the towering marble walls wrapped around me, comforting me with the spirits that lived and died  here.


Mosaic Canyon,  which has endured millions of years of nature’s pounding forces of wind, sand,  and water,  and will continue the struggle, shared its  miracle of survival with me.

Mesquite Sand Dunes  are the only dunes in the park that allow sand boarding.

The Goldwell Open Air Museum situated just outside the Rhyolite  ghost town compliments the theme of  this area. Sportster wanted to share his impressions Rhyoite so don’t forget to check out his blog.

Just outside of Rhyolite, Nevada, a spectacular ghost town off the road leading to Death Valley, California, a group of prominent Belgian artists, led by the late Albert Szukalski, created a self-described art situation consisting of seven outdoor sculptures that are colossal not only in their scale, but in their placement within the vast upper Mojave desert.

Goldwell exists because artists from afar chose the Mojave Desert as a place to make work freely, in contrast with their practice in Europe. Those experiences led several of them to create the large scale, on-site sculptures that define Goldwell as a destination. There are few other places where such art-making activities could have taken place; the desert is integral to their work.

Decades later, artists from all over the world, having heard of Goldwell, still seek out this place. With new artist residency and artist workspace programs offered in the nearby Red Barn Art Center, Goldwell remains a place for those who seek adventure in their art making in a spectacular and challenging landscape
Death Valley is a land of miracles. Contrasts and extremes create the stories of our   lives, making our existence  and our survival excruciatingly painful, and yet in the end, miraculously joyful.
Death Valley fills me with inspiration and thankfulness.  I cannot mold the words which describe the beauty and the desolation, the loneliness and the spirituality, the icy, dry winds and the searing thirsty sunshine.  But these ingredients are a recipe for thankfulness and humility, without which my life would be an impossible struggle.
On this Thanksgiving Day I want to remember those who came before me, who are no longer here. My family -my roots, the pioneers who trudged through this land discovering it, and the veterans who have protected it. For all of you, I am grateful.
Happy Thanksgiving.


  1. This is a fine piece of writing. It has it all, colorful history, contrasts of hope and despair and tenacity. The land really came alive. Thanks

  2. Thank you! I love the desert this time of the year!!