It was close to midnight as we drove away from one of the strangest shows I’d ever seen. Going to see an opera while visiting Death Valley when I was 20 years old, was not my idea and I was not sure that it was even a good idea, but the group leader was determined, so we secured camp and off we went. It turned into one of the most surreal and memorable nights and just one part of a memorable camping trip at the oddest of places I’d ever visited.
Death Valley is in the south eastern corner of California, near the Nevada border.
I was considered an adult (albeit a rather young and impetuous one) and was along to assist my friend, John, a high school teacher with keeping his band of 20 students alive and well during his many camping trips. I loved to camp so helping him herd his students sounded like fun. I’d never been to Death Valley so I listened carefully during his pre-trip orientation.
It did not take much study to understand where the name for unique place came from. It is very easy to die in Death Valley, but the attractions make worth the care needed.
I borrowed my dad’s old pickup truck to carry camping gear an packs and chose a couple of cute gals to ride with me to you know, watch the gear, while I followed 2 other vehicles for the drive from San Jose to the Furnace Creek Campground. Dad had also told me not to use the second gas tank because some moisture had gotten into it and it was rusting, dropping flecks of corroded steel into the fuel. This would clog the gas line filter. “Okay, ignore the second tank. Got it.”
After spending the second day checking out the nearby visitors center and playing in the sand dunes just north of camp, John surprised us after dinner with an unexpected “treat”. When he told us his idea, even I wondered what he was thinking.
“An opera? You want to take us to an opera? Now? Here in Death Valley?.”
“Well she also does ballet,” John added, as if that made it a good idea.
The cultural juxtapostioning of us still shaking the sand out of our shoes and pockets with sitting in an opera house was quite a stretch, but I quickly recalled that I was there to support John in making this trip memorable. It would not have my my choice, but he’s the boss, so I swallowed my doubts and began to advocate for the idea. And away we went. I was mildly concerned as we pulled out of the small visitors center area and found the gas station closed. Did I have enough fuel for this round trip?
This opera house is still located in Death Valley Junction, a near-ghost town, and had become renown for its owner and the main dancer singer, Marta Becket, who acquired the hall, rebuilt it and painted amazing murals inside to turn the small building into the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. She is still known as ‘Death Valley’s Ghost Town Ballerina’. We lost her at the age of 92 in 2017.
Oh – and Death Valley Junction did not and still does not have a gas station. I was beginning to understand why so many people die out here.
Anyway, the girls and I made it to the show okay with the others and now I just needed to make the gas last the 30 mile trip back to the camp ground. Of course we only made it about 15 miles before the engine sputtered and died of petro-starvation, leaving us to coast to a flat-enough area off the road so we could watch the others drive off into the distance. ‘Please, someone look back.’ I thought. ‘I can’t pick up my cell phone for another 20 years. Come on. Look back someone. . .’
So now I had to figure a way to not spend the night in the truck cab with these two girls, stranded out in the Death Valley desert, where hopefully someone will discover and help us before, well, this is Death Valley. I’ve got to think of something.
‘Something’ put me under the truck’s second tank, with a empty water bottle, cloth and wrench, loosening the tank drain valve to let the contaminated gas pour into the bottle but only through the cloth to filter out the rust. I spilled more gas that I was able to recover, which drizzled down my arm into my shirt. It barely worked, and we limped back into camp as John was putting together a search party to go find us. “Glad you’re okay Gary, but man you smell like a molotov cocktail .”
I had a harder time finding riders after this episode.
The next day, I had cleaned up but woke with a suspicious sore throat that I recognized by the time we started working on breakfast. Only 3 years ago, I’d come down with a similar condition which proved to be strep throat which I was now getting once a year. “Not now. . .” I moaned to myself. I knew if I did not get this thing treated, the symptoms would get nasty and strep did not just go away by itself. I had to find penicillin fast as the headache and fever was taking hold.
The visitor center guy gave me the directions to the nurse’s building, about 10 minutes away, “but she doesn’t open until 10am.”
“Great. Just great. Another 90 minutes. Okay, I need to gas up anyway.”
“Yea, they open at 10 also. . .”
“It’s going to be one of those days. . .”
I drove to the gas station and spent those 90 minutes removing and cleaning the gas filter because the engine was struggling. Somehow, dirty gas had gotten into the line.
‘My throat is starting to burn and I’m fussing with a stupid gas filter.’
My voice was failing when the nurse arrived, but she understood that this was familiar to me and all I needed was a penicillin shot and some pills for the next few days.
She took my temperature and one look down my throat and said. “Ick! Drop your pants Mr. Wilson and I’ll get you fixed right up. I’m about to be the highlight of your visit to Death Valley.”
I did and she did, while cracking jokes that I couldn’t laugh at if I wanted to.
“It’s not every day I get to start with some young man taking his pants off for me,” she said cheerfully as she mopped one side of my butt with alcohol and thrust in a huge needle full of the needed white nectar.
‘Seriously,’ I thought, ‘where did you get your bedside manner lady?’
I croaked out a thank you, paid my bill and took my pills back to camp. I told John I was taking the day off to sleep, take my pills every 4 hours and sleep. I hated missing the first day of serious touring, but I was almost back to normal the next day.
Penicillin is my friend. I’m not as sure about that nurse.
In the days that followed, I recovered fast enough to join in the fun of some sight seeing and short hikes. If you get a chance to go, don’t miss:
- Devil’s Golf course
- Both Titus and Twenty Mule Team Canyons
- Scotty’s Castle and Racetrack Road
- The oxidized wonder of Artists Palette
- Dante’s viewpoint
- Zabriskie Point
There are dozens of website with spectacular photos of these and other attractions from Death Valley worthy of spending time with.
The last part of my story happened in a wash area of an unnamed canyon and a certain nearly vertical wall where I delivered on a promise to show the class a demonstration of rappelling.
I showed John how to ‘belay’ and started up the cliff.
It was a short hike up the edge I had selected and set down my rope and rappelling gear and looked over the edge to wave down at everyone.
It took me a few minutes to find something to tie off to. Normally a sturdy tree is preferred, but in Death Valley 90+ percent of the trees are in picture books of somewhere else and the rest are either just big succulents with an inferiority complex which should not be trusted with a rapper’s rope.
I found a large spike of rock near the ledge, walked a rope end around it and came back to tie my trusted bowline knot. I picked up the rope and examined how it was coiled. I needed it to be as cross-free as possible. After clearing a few crossings, I gave it a strong cast out over the ledge and watched it unwind cleanly down, down further, even further and finally the last 6 feet of my 300 foot long rope landed softly on the basin floor.
Quickly I did the math, 300 feet of rope, less the 6 on the basin floor, less about 15 feet for that loop and bowline knot around the rock spike left just over 280 feet of rope and cliff for me to rappel down.
280 feet! This was going to be an epic ride!
I had made a strong point for how safe rappelling is, if you do it right and have a capable belayer. I wanted to show them how this person can save your life even if go fully unconscious. This was, by far the tallest drop I’d ever tried and my rope had never seen such a tall wall. Stepping over the edge surprised me in how heavy the rope felt. I almost had to force it through my carabiner rig. I had to get almost a third of the way down before things felt normal.
I yelled down to John that I was ready if he was. He had the rope wrapped around his rear end, ready to drop his body weight on the rope. I was ready so I yelled, “oh no – a rock falling towards me. Thump.” I threw my hands back, fully letting go of the rope and went limp to dangle from the carabiner rig and harness. I fell only a few feet because John dropped his weight onto the end of the rope as planned which tightened the rope all the way up to where I was and locked it up from passing through my rig,
The class cheered as I hung upside down, faking being unconscious and limp. Then, as we planned, John gently loosened up and showed how he could easily lower me to the ground if needed without any help from me.
But we stopped so I could show off some. There are all sorts of fun things you can do from a rope on the side of a cliff wall.
I was spinning and jumping from side to side, having a great time when I noticed John and the others yelling incoherently and waving at me. “What?” I wondered and almost without thinking glanced up only to see what they were all carrying on about.
A large rock had popped out from somewhere, loosened by my rope no doubt and was now gaining speed towards my forehead. With no time to think, I threw my head and shoulder back as the rock swooshed past my chin and grazed my thigh on its way down the cliff.
‘Wow!’ That was close and the first time that ever happened.
John was shaken worse than me by the time I got back to the ground and the rock left a scary crater where it landed within 5 feet of where he had been belaying me and worrying that he was going to have to lower my lifeless body down for real.
So I discovered how adrenalin can rivet events into memory and can even inspire one to buy a helmet before another visit to a rappelling cliff.