Saturday, June 26, 2010

Desert escape

By Mike McIlvain
BEATTY, Nevada – Traveling connected highways in a circle from this small Nevada town through Death Valley National Park connected me to a brighter personal understanding of a previously dark time.
Taking advantage of a $300 round trip airfare to Las Vegas in a slight window between semesters enabled me to breathe easy desert air, blissfully lose track of time, win – a little – playing slot machines, and experience Death Valley. All this in a Monday through Friday, late May trip to reconcile with a special place in my youth.
Snow-splashed peaks above and drab olive green desert shrubbery below dot my mind’s eye in lasting images from this brief time-defying escape out west.
I was forced to go by a step-father’s last name for many years, dating back to the ‘60s when living on the Central California coast. That step-father, Bob, enjoyed exploring Southern California deserts in his 4-wheel drive car, and Death Valley National Park was mentioned, but never visited as a family.
As far as I know, Bob never got to Death Valley after we moved back to Texas in ’68, but he continued to drive into Southern California’s deserts alone until he rolled his Bronco over. That accident had lingering health effects and eventually served to cut his life short through a heart attack in 1972. Bob and my mom were married only 10 years, but she made me feel obligated to carry his last name for another quarter of a century, and it took years to finally put all of that in its proper psychological file. Problems with a very troublesome older step-brother painted the Bob-era in sad shades of black, but this trip made the past much easier to live with.
Bob had a habit of buying treasure hunter magazines and leaving them around for others to read, and the other was usually me. Nevada-based imagination-stirring stories of prospectors, bandits, and gunfighters stood out in these magazines with very few pictures long before graphics became a regular sight in printed media. But the writers knew how to gain and keep attention, and they still had mine over 40 years later – attached to vague fantasies of fortunes waiting under out-of-place-looking brown and red rocks. Obscure, silent attractions like the Rhyolite gold and silver mining ghost town on the edge of Death Valley stepped right out of those old magazine pages.
My very affordable pay-as-you-go cell phone failed to pick up a signal out in this sea of desert and mountains – something I came to appreciate, seeing that it seemed to further drop me back into the past. Eight hundred-fifty friendly, waving people live in Beatty where I headquartered for two days and nights in my desert exploration. No standard issue chain grocery store exists there, too – often forcing locals to drive at least 90 minutes into Las Vegas for food. Beatty residents do not have to leave town to gamble with a casino sitting on its northern edge. Bikers, Mexican food, a club of locals frequently wearing western clothing, and a block of downtown bars built like 19th century saloons offer cold beer, bland chili, friendly conversation, and nearby mountain views.
There is plenty to see in a roadway circle slightly west of Beatty under dust-stirring gusty winds.
Rhyolite sits quietly over those surrounding mountains 4 miles west of Beatty, and was an active mining town 100 years ago. says it was the state’s third largest city at the time of 8,000 in those days. It also claims that 21 movies, documentaries, newsreels, or travelogues have been shot there. Rhyolite could look a little familiar once there, and some sculptures made by mostly Belgian artists stand out in white and rusty brown to give this ghost town a sometimes chilling, but attention-grabbing effect.
Taking a right out of Rhyolite leads directly into Death Valley National Park, and the California state line. Death Valley is home to the lowest point below sea level in the U.S., and remembered by some as the namesake of long gone western TV show – Death Valley Days.
Television helped give Death Valley its image of being a hot, tough, challenging landscape, but that didn’t hold up in a drive through in late May – a breezy mid-70s is not close to the 130, or more, of legend. Only a hint of heat crept into my shirt sleeve on the tail end of a breeze during a roadside photo stop in the soft, light brown and tan sandy shoulder.
The first turn north in Death Valley National Park leads to Scotty’s Castle, which is a host of stories told, and waiting to be retold.
This American castle was built Spanish-style in white stucco under red roof tiles as a winter home by Chicago insurance magnate Albert Johnson in the 1920s. It was officially named Death Valley Ranch, but friend Walter “Death Valley Scotty” Scott publically claimed it as his own, telling others that it was financed through a gold mine hidden under the main house. Johnson never said otherwise, and as word of this desert castle grew it came to be known as Scotty’s Castle. The federal government bought the property years later in 1970, including it in Death Valley with non-National Park Service tour guides wearing clothing appropriate to its heyday in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s.
A tour guide said the castle was a film site in some early ‘30s talkies, but the movie room is a show-stopper with its built in player piano made to accompany the silent flicks of the time, too. The castle is based largely on Johnson’s college boy memories of Stanford University. Scotty’s Castle sits in California by only a few miles on Highway 5 North, which leads back into U.S. 95 – the Bonanza Highway. U.S. 95 leads back into Beatty.
Beatty only has one casino, but its slot machines beat their cousins in Las Vegas easily on this trip, yielding a $200 jackpot once, heightening the thrill of victory in this desert exploration. My smarter self scored over the dumber Mike once when knowing when to walk out of the casino when losing started to become a regular occurrence, despite the reverse psychology of the cashier who worked hard to sound like he was on my side. The significance of that was realized a few days later in Las Vegas when I heard another casino employee doing exactly the same thing in one of the bigger establishments on the strip.
But the real victory was personal, completing a trip only spoken of many years ago on the other side of these western Rocky Mountains.
The past might have had me find some way to blame Bob for any of the trip’s few lesser moments, but I think the internal realization of fulfillment after driving that circle means it is time to offer thanks, somehow.