“Tomesha”, the Panamint Indians called it:  “Ground Afire.”  In the height of summer there is no better name for this sun-tortured trench between blistered ranges but when a group of forty-niners stumbled into it, "Death Valley "was the only name they could use that truly described it's presence.

     Drive in from the east through Daylight Pass to get an inkling of how those emigrants felt.  Short-cutting to the gold fields, they had crossed a weary succession of deserts and barren hills.  At last they came to this range, seemingly topped by a peak flying banner of snow.  Surely these must be the Sierras!  They flung themselves at the bald mountains, wrenched their groaning wagons through the wash and gullies, then stared in numb despair at the trick nature had played. 

     Miles yet from the Sierras, they stood amid the Armargosa Range.  Between them and the peak whose snow has lured them-11,049- foot Telescope Peak, high point of the forbidding Pana-mint Range- spread a desolate sink, 4 to 16 miles wide, mostly below sea level.  Rather than turn back, they decided to cross the salt-crusted, lava smeared plain.

  Thus the trap snapped them.  In your car today you can drive freely and comfortably along the valley floor and spend the night at Furnace Creek with its irrigated date palms, its inn and ranch, its tennis courts and swimming pool.  Here the Jayhawkers, one of the emigrant parties, scrabbled frantically for water.  You may park beside the Devils Gold Course, that strange rubble of crystalline salt pinnacles and gravels that stretch down the valley 40 miles and is 1,000 feet deep.  This bed of an Ice Age inland sea blocked the Bennett-Arcane party when they sought escape to the south.  Your road skirts close under the brooding Pana-mints where those slow-dying men and women finally clawed their way out of the valley, then looked back on it and cursed it with a lasting name. 

     Death Valley-a bitter name, and hardly a just one, for life abounds here.    The kit fox, desert coyote, and Bailey bobcat pad across the desert floor at night.  Rabbit’s and ground squirrels scurry through the mesquite.  Only sand dunes and salt beds are bare of plants- and the pale green pickle weed, resistant to salt and alkali, braves the very edge of the Devils Golf Course.  Water flows sweet in many subsurface veins.  Gardens flourish except in summer when temperatures have hoisted to a poleaxing 134 degrees.  Death Valley’s climate smiles on man by day and treats him to Technicolor sunsets as lowering rays play on the eroded, mineral-stained hill.  Nights are often cool.

     It took the ubiquitous prospector to discover that the place was livable.  One of the lost forty-niners, searching for the gun sight he had accidentally knocked from his rifle, found a chunk of rich silver ore.  His story brought miners with their burros. Though no one ever located the Lost Gun Sight Mine, other strikes were made.  Boom towns sprouted along the mountains, howled on Saturday nights, then withered away, leaving slag heaps of broken bottles.  In 1880, a destitute couple, trying to scrape a desert living, learned of valuable borax and how its deposits look. 

     A former trick rider in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Walter Scott hit the 1905 headlines when he emerged from Death Valley with padlocked sacks of gold, scattered bills like confetti on Los Angeles streets and hired a train for a record run to Chicago.  For years, he fostered the legend that a hidden gold mine kept his pockets jingling.  Actually, a millionaire friend set up Scotty just for laughs.

Death Valley(130516)