Desert Hideaway

A visit to the sunstruck landscape of Death Valley, and to the isolated cabin where Charles Manson lived in 1969

LOS Angeles is a desert (or almost), but sometimes you want even more desert. What you do then is get in the car and take the 10 to the 405 to the 5 to the 14, or the 55 to the 91 to the 15, or some other combination of highways heading roughly northeast from the city, and after an hour and a half or two hours the expanses of pavement have narrowed, the sky is a bright blue tinged with smog, and empty, unmistakable desert is all around. Brown hills dotted with small bushes as regularly spaced as beard stubble rise on the horizon; low brush beside the road holds shreds of fluttering trash. A canyon is filled with boulders heaped up like paperwork you'll never get to. Then comes a broad flat plain of nothing but gray sand and rocks, with a single anomalous object -- an orange traffic cone, the hood from a barbecue grill resting in the middle distance, as if to aid perspective.

If you stay on the 15 toward Las Vegas and night falls, the four lanes of headlights and taillights become a string dwindling far across the darkness. Suddenly, at the Nevada border, the lit-up casino town of Primm appears, as gaudy as a funhouse entrance. I don't go that way, though; for some reason, Las Vegas does not interest me. Instead I take the 14 north through the high-desert town of Mojave. Just past there a field of wind turbines hums in the wind, the long, propellerlike blades on towers eighty feet high throwing giant shadows as they turn, some clockwise, some counterclockwise. Across the highway from them, to the west, an airfield full of used passenger jets bleaches in the sun. The map shows the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a blue line running nearby. In fact the aqueduct here is an imposing white pipe eight feet across that wanders the contours of the dirt-bike-furrowed hills like a garden hose. From 14 I cut across on a two-lane road to the old mining town of Randsburg, and from there continue to Trona, a lakeside town whose lake dried up 20,000 years ago, leaving a bone-white salt flat that is said to contain half the natural elements known to man. IMC Chemicals, a sprawling enterprise, now mines the flat; Trona smells like sulfur and is windy, gritty, and hot. Past Trona, over some hills and across another vast and shimmering desert flat, is the western boundary of Death Valley National Park.

DEATH Valley is the largest national park in the lower forty-eight states, and it includes more than three million acres of wilderness. At its center is the long, low desert valley from which the park takes its name. Toward the east side of the valley is a fancy inn, the Furnace Creek Inn, and an eighteen-hole golf course. The first time I went to Death Valley was to play golf. I had wondered what a golf course in the desert, 214 feet below sea level, would be like. When I got to the pro shop, a high wind was whipping the tamarisk trees that enclose the course, and dark storm clouds were pouring over the barren Panamint Range to the west like spilled paint. The guy in the pro shop said the storm was supposed to hit in an hour, but if I wanted to play, it was my money. The bad weather had emptied the course, a situation I like; I am such an indifferent golfer that I prefer there be no witnesses. Also, I am afraid of injuring somebody. I teed off, occasionally running down to a green to reset a flag knocked over by the wind. By the time I reached the fifth hole, the storm had turned to the north, the wind had dropped, and the sun emerging on the horizon lit the course like a klieg light. Mourning doves were eating the recently sown grass seed on the tees, and a pair of coyotes had emerged to stalk the ducks and Canada geese gabbling in the hazards. A coyote with eyes only for the waterfowl was sitting on his haunches on the fringe of the seventh green.

The village of Furnace Creek sits in a natural oasis and makes a green rectangle on the desert floor. Along with the inn and the golf course there are campgrounds, a motel, and the headquarters of the Park Service. Tour buses and little rental cars come and go, and tourists -- many of them Germans, who seem to have a thing for deserts -- line up at the cash registers in the gift shop. Just a step on the other side of the tamarisk-tree border extreme desert begins. One afternoon I ducked through the trees at a corner of the golf course and walked across desert like gray pie crust to the village of the Timbisha Shoshone Indians, a half mile or so away. I had heard that the Timbisha had been high-handedly evicted from the oasis years ago. Among the irregularly spaced mobile homes of the Timbisha village I found the one belonging to the tribal chairman, Pauline Esteves, a dour, heavyset woman in her seventies. After many questions about who I was and what I wanted to know, she reluctantly agreed to talk to me. Sitting with her head in her hands at her dining-room table, she said that people who write about her almost always get everything wrong. To my questions about Timbisha history she responded first by staring back at me, irritatedly and long.

She said that the Timbisha people had lived here for thousands of years; that they had been the first to use the natural springs at Furnace Creek to cultivate the land; that a mining company had dispossessed them and bulldozed their houses in the 1920s; that the golf course was near where her house used to be; that despite such incursions the Timbisha had never left and didn't intend to leave. She added that they found the name Death Valley insulting. I asked about a local landmark, and what the Timbisha name for it had been. She buried her face in her hands for a while in silence. Then she looked at me and said, "Impossible to translate." She said that the tribe had been working for decades to get their land back but that she doubted they ever would. (A few weeks after I talked to her, I saw in the paper that the federal government had agreed to return 300 acres of land at Furnace Creek oasis to the Timbisha, along with about 7,200 acres outside the park. Congress has yet to approve the plan: I have a feeling that Pauline Esteves will believe it when she sees it.)

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