Death Valley Days and Books



I blame 1950s television. When my family acquired a TV in the latter part of the decade, one of the shows we watched was the popular western, Death Valley Days, hosted by the likes of “Old Ranger,” Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, and Dale Robertson, and even for one year—while Reagan ran for governor—a woman, Rosemary DeCamp. Weekly, the 20-Mule Team harnessed up to bring housewives the important Boraxo laundry detergent–the show’s sponsor–to do the hard work of keeping the family clothes clean. Historically, the mule teams pulled two massive wagons of borax plus a third wagon with enough water to supply both animals and drivers for the ten-day, 165-mile grueling trip.

My image of Death Valley was all about alkaline wastelands like Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the U.S.A.

But Death Valley is so much more than salt flats. We found colorful, geologically diverse slot canyons, snow-capped peaks, and the extraordinary Zabriskie Point. Hiking was extraordinary.

When we weren’t on the trail, we hung out at the historic Furnace Creek Lodge, a high-end accommodation with a price that is only justified through its stunning palm-studded gardens and silky water swimming pool.

What to read when in this unique national park? The pickings are, frankly, slim. Let’s start with Badwater (2013). Move over forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver (Aaron Elkins’ amateur detective). Enter forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws, the product of author Toni Dwiggins’ series. Radioactive waste and terrorism link up to provide some terrifying moments in a narrative that delivers plenty of local color.

Frank Norris’ novel McTeague (1899) features a cruel dentist who eventually kills his wife and then escapes to Death Valley. According to The Writer’s Almanac, “the book galvanized readers and critics, some of whom called it ‘stomach-crunking’ and ‘vulgar.’” Norris is in the family of naturalistic writers. I recall one of my English professors explaining the difference between realism and naturalism: realism is when the author describes the street scene and everyone and everything in it; naturalism is when the author describes what is in the gutter.

Wanderer in the Wasteland (1923) by Zane Grey is the story of a young man, Adam Larey—a real greenhorn—is betrayed by his older brother, Guerd, a gambler. Adam shoots his brother and escapes to a mining town and later the desert—Death Valley—where he grows into a responsible adult, a person respected in the West. He falls for a woman in Death Valley who is married to a despicable husband. Classic Zane Grey. The landscape—magnificent yet hostile–is a featured character.

For the real story of the lowest and hottest point in the United States, check out Death Valley in ’49, the memoir of William Lewis Manly, one of the survivors of a wagon train that thought it could take a short cut. When the travelers were finally rescued, the story is that they looked back and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

Other possible books  include Ghost Riders in the Sky: The Story of Stan Jones, the Singing Ranger; Death Valley Scotty by Mabel; Jack Longstreet: The Last of the Desert Frontiersman; and the more recent Daniel Arnold’s Salt to Summit: A Vagabond’s Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney. A poem about Jack Longstreet is on display at the wonderful Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge near his cabin, which includes a separate section of the Death Valley National Park.

Andrew Jackson Longstreet

Notched his gun for each man killed

Local sheriffs were not thrilled

Five grooves placed upon that gun

Jack regretted only one

Built a cabin in Ash Meadows

To hide out from the posse fellows

Stones piled high to save his head

From pistols spinning white-hot lead.

This poem is but one treat in the under-rated Ash Meadows.

What looks like scrub desert is punctuated by blue pools of lively, tiny Pupfish, an endemic species that has survived in spite of living in harsh conditions. (Check out

SaltCreek pupfish

Salt Creek, DVNP

another variety of Pupfish in Salt Creek in Death Valley.)

We were walking along one particularly lovely creek where we found a sign that in the recent past, the wetlands were scheduled to be developed for condos and casinos. Thankfully, a protest saved the area. Edward Abbey put it succinctly in his Desert Solitaire, “There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”

In addition to the geologic wonders of Death Valley, the environs include some funky stops: the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, founded by Marta Becket, a NYC showgirl whose car broke down in the desert in the 60s and who lived and performed here until her recent death in early 2017. (Check out her story and obituary here:

Tecopa features Death Valley Brewing in town and China Date Farm a few miles distant, down a rather awe-inspiring road to the oasis where delicious dates and hiking trails can be found. Seriously, try the date milkshake after returning from a walk in the canyon.

Then there is Goodwell, an open-air museum and sculpture garden in the ghost town of Rhyolite, where one historic home is constructed with bottles. Seriously, Belgian artists have created sculptures of The Last Supper, a mosaic couch, and a larger than life prospect with a penguin(?) in this desert setting.

Goodwell is between Death Valley and Pahrump, a gateway to the park with a really decent winery and restaurant.

Death Valley and its environs might be considered a wasteland by some, but it’s a remarkably diverse landscape and a delight for a mid-winter escape.

Coda: En route home, we stopped at Eli at the Northern Nevada Railway Museum, where we were treated to a terrific tour by curator Sean Pitts. Overnight at the All Aboard B&B and Cafe was a fitting complement. Not a bad way to spend a Spring Break.

Eli RR



Reading Montana

wmt_mapAny trip to Montana means finding an unread Ivan Doig title, and there on my shelves was one just waiting: The Eleventh Man (2009). Unusual for Doig’s novels, this one is based not only in Montana but around the globe as its protagonist, Ben Reinking, war correspondent tracks his former football teammates as a special assignment during World War II. This means the reader gets insight into the fighting in the Pacific theatre and Europe as well as the defense along the Northwest Coast.

His primary base though is an airfield in Great Falls, Montana where women pilots—WASPs—fly P-39 planes that will be transferred to Russian pilots as part of the US Lend-Lease Program to help its allies on the Eastern Front. Predictably, Ben falls for the lead pilot, Cass Standish, whose husband is stationed in the Pacific. They have a passionate romance, and it’s never clear which man she will eventually choose.

Doig’s premise for the plot derives from a factoid that Montana lost more soldiers in the war than the law of averages predicted, and in fact, all of the players from one of Montana State University’s football teams perished. The fictional version is Treasure State’s “Supreme Team,” who was unbeaten in their senior year of 1941. Ben follows each of the players, who are developed for the most part rather superficially.

While I was reading this novel, I had a lot of “I didn’t know that” moments, particularly about the WASPs and conscientious objectors, and I can trust the facts in a work of fiction by Doig as he has a PhD in History and takes care with his research.

The bartender, Tom Harry of Medicine Lodge, who serves Ben drinks and loans him a Packard and gas coupons, is a minor character in The Eleventh Man but featured in The Bartender’s Tale. Harry also worked as a bartender in the novel Bucking the Sun, which focuses on the construction of the Fort Peck Dam. Revisiting characters is a hallmark of Doig’s work, most recently true with the three-book series that features Morrie Morgan: The Whistling Season, Work Song, and the soon to appear Sweet Thunder. Morrie really stole the show in the first novel and moved center stage for the second, which is located in Butte. I must admit that I pass Butte as quickly as possible when driving I-15 to northern Montana; its pit mining has left a horrific scar on the land.

I much prefer the more pastoral Montana trilogy, which includes my favorite novel of all time, Dancing at the Rascal Fair. Its companions are the notable English Creek and the less interesting Ride with Me, Mariah Montana. Although Rascal Fair was published after English Creek, chronologically, it begins the series with two Scottish immigrants arriving in Montana in the late 19th century. English Creek picks up the next generation of McCaskill and Barclay families and features Jick, an endearing fourteen year old, and finally Mariah Montana finds a much older Jick riding along while his daughter covers the state’s centennial. Personally, I find the older the setting, the better the novel, but Mariah offers a great tour of “the last best place.”

Because my trip led me to Helena, Doig’s Prairie Nocturne was a good choice, focusing on singer Susan Duff, who first appeared in Rascal Fair. She is given the unlikely assignment of voice lessons for a black chauffeur in 1920s Montana.  But the setting also includes the Harlem Renaissance.

Western Montana also figures in Mountain Time, less of a favorite, given its contemporary setting, but interesting for its inclusion of Bob Marshall, an outdoorsman for whom the Bob Marshall Wilderness is named—a stunning geographic area that is most likely accessible via a pack or backpack trip. The Two Medicine Country, which includes Gros Ventre, the town Doig uses most often fictionally, encompasses the Dupuyer or Choteau of his youth. This is definitely Big Sky Country, and Doig is at his best evoking that landscape.

Bullhead Lake, Glacier Country

Bullhead Lake, Glacier Country


Refrigerator Canyon, near Helena


Avalanche Creek Gorge

Choteau, Montana

Choteau, Montana

In addition to a goodly number of novels, Doig has written two memoirs, This House of Sky and Heart Earth, the former his first book and a finalist for the National Book Award. It is hands down one of most lyrical books I’ve ever read. That said, I realize that some readers find Doig’s prose a bit dense or too purple prose with description that distracts. I admire the care with which he constructs his narratives and grimace only on occasion with a phrase that has perhaps reached too far.

Given the focus of this trip—Montana—I’d be remiss not to include Norman Maclean’s wonderful story, A River Runs Through It (1976), that matches Doig’s work in lyricism. Maclean grew up in Missoula although the film version of the novella seems to be set nearer to Bozeman along the Gallatin River. But on this trip, I was thinking more of the posthumously published book, Young Men and Fire (1992), which details the tragic loss of 13 firefighters who perished in a blow-up at Mann Gulch near Helena. We hiked Refrigerator Canyon, not far from this area, which also includes the funky “town” of York, named for the black man who accompanied the Lewis & Clark Expedition. (Try the burgers at the local bar situated along the Missouri River, which features a York candy as a take-away.) A blow-up fire is also an important part of Doig’s English Creek. One of the firefighters at Mann Gulch set what is thought to be the first escape fire—lighting a fire and then lying down in the burnt area, hoping that the main fire would burn around him. It worked for him.

This 1949 tragedy was surpassed while we were on the road by the one in Yarnell,Arizona in which 19 Granite Mountain firefighters perished.  One hopes that their story is told as eloquently as Maclean did for those in the Mann Gulch disaster.