Travel Notes: Death Valley, Part I

Welcome to the first in an occasional series that we are calling “Travel Notes.” In Travel Notes we’ll be sharing our thoughts on the aesthetic and cultural dimensions of tourist sites that we visit. I’m kicking off Travel Notes with a multi-part series on a recent visit to Death Valley National Park. My mom, who in the 1960s considered the federal land her home, organized this trip for my parents and family. In this post, I provide background context about my family’s connections to this park and give my general impressions of the broader region.

Death Valley National Monument, Family, and History

My trip to Death Valley was an opportunity to encounter a place that has occupied an almost mythic status in my maternal family’s history. From very young, I was taught that my maternal grandfather had a very special relationship to the American wilderness. He had spent years in various seasonal jobs in the National Park System – at such places as Olympic, Mesa Verde, and Big Bend. In the mid-1960s, he was able to finally find full-time employment – at what was then known as Death Valley National Monument – where he relocated his wife and three kids (who were living in Missouri during his seasonal jobs). My mom was in her early teens when they moved to the Monument. She lived there for about four years before leaving for college. Even though her time in Death Valley was relatively brief, she nonetheless considers this vast space of the California desert the closest thing to a childhood home.

After she moved away to attend college, and then later join the Navy, she would continue to visit the place semi-regularly until my grandparents moved away in the early 1970s.  After she married my father, she brought him there. But she has not been there since then, and thus our trip with her marked her first time in Death Valley in 40 years.

I arrived in Death Valley National Park hoping to find remnants of what the place was like when my mom called it her home. In this, I succeeded, but I also learned that many of the structures that remain are scheduled to soon be torn down and rebuilt (as I will detail in an upcoming post). I left with a complex mix of feelings that were in no small part shaped by my impressions of the broader human history and the landscape itself, but were also deeply personal.

During the trip, I had to come to terms with my mom’s gaps in memory of the place that time and geological distance – and aging – helped create. Her stories and recollections were foggy and at times frustratingly vague. Later, I tried to fact check some of her recollections and discovered that some of her accounts came short of factual realities. Thus, our trip to Death Valley assumed many purposes – reunion for my mother, introduction for us, connection with a grandfather since gone, and a reckoning with the slippery nature of memory itself.

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Traveling to Death Valley

My family’s journey to Death Valley began with a flight to Las Vegas, that paean to capitalism and spectacle and gambling that sprawls across the desert floor in southern Nevada. From there, we traveled westward by rented SUV.  The Las Vegas suburbs spread outward along the desert valley towards the mountain ridges; it took us more than forty-five minutes to escape them the morning we left.  If nothing else, this sprawling drive offered a chance to see how wealth is expressed in Las Vegas outside the gaudy strip. One of the features of note: walls bordering many of the wealthier neighborhoods, separating the residences from the road and blocking our views. Another feature: lush greenery made possible by a watering system, giving the illusion of an desert oasis.

One of the things that I’ll be talking about in future posts is the way that gardens demarcate luxury in Death Valley National Park as well. Notably the only two places that we saw an abundance of flowers and palm trees on our trip was in the Vegas suburbs and at Death Valley’s historic Furnace Creek Inn. All else in between was earthen in color, dusty, dry, or dead. For example, the most direct route from Las Vegas (about 2 hours) is through a midsize town called Pahrump, which has elements of Las Vegas – particularly strip malls and casinos lining its streets – but also has a more industrial appearance thanks in part to its relative lack of verdant colors. Like Las Vegas, Pahrump spreads across a desert floor, but with another notable difference; mines border its peripheries.

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A building that was once a brothel in the mining ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada (photo by Bryna Campbell)

Mining has long been one of the main industries of this part of the desert. I would later learn that Death Valley had borax mines operating until 2005. Almost all the towns that remain in the region between Las Vegas and Death Valley had their starts as mining boom towns for borax, gold, or other minerals. Some, such as the small blip of a village outside of the park entrance called Death Valley Junction, are almost ghost towns today.

Others still function but have also suffered as of late due to the Great Recession. On our way we took a detour to the small town of Shoshone, significant to my family because my mom attended high school there when she lived in the region. There, we were able to talk to locals who talked about the economic stress of the recent recession first hand. At my mom’s alma mater Death Valley High School (now a K-12 school called Death Valley academy), an administrator revealed that the economic downturn has put the school at risk of closing down.  The drop in attendance has been huge in the last few years; since the early 2000s, the attendance for the school has declined from about 80 students to only 30 students today. This at a school that serves a community spread more than 90 miles. As this administrator noted, if the school closes the community will further crumble. Without it, families with kids can’t stay in the region.

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Death Valley Academy (formerly Death Valley High School), in Shoshone, CA, currently serves about 30 students total, grades K-12. Doors from each classroom open into this central outdoor space (photo by Bryna Campbell)
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The Crowbar Cafe and Saloon, in Shoshone, CA, where children would have their school lunch in the 1960s (photo by Bryna Campbell)

I arrived in Death Valley later that evening thinking not about the natural setting or the sublime landscape I would get to explore, but the fragility of the desert ecosystem on communities. Over the course of our trip we’d visit ghost towns such as Rhyolite and Leadfield that left further evidence of the historical challenges of living in the region. It was dusk by the time we arrived in Death Valley National Park. We were staying at the Furnace Creek Ranch, which was once a favorite haunt of my mother’s in the 1960s. In the next post, I’ll be discussing this complex, the fantasies it presents, along with some thoughts on the historic Furnace Creek Inn.

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Feature photo of Death Valley by Bryna Campbell

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