Ever since the days of my youth, I used to imagine what the great open expanses of the wild west would look like. (Some of my visions may have been a result of seeing too many Westerns!) I felt the urge to visit those places some day. I was not disappointed during the trip to Death Valley.
Death Valley was the home to the Timbisha Shoshone group of Native Americans for a long time (about a thousand years) before the White Man made his appearance. They called the land Tüpippüh. It was not an easy place to live in, but the Timbisha did not think of it as a place of death. They adapted to the region and found a way to live off the land using whatever natural resources were available in a sustainable manner. Indeed, if you go to the desert, it is not really devoid of life. There are hardy plants that have found a way to survive in the tough conditions, and even flowers during this spring season which has brought an excess of rain to California.
There is even flowing water in the desert (this picture is from Salt Creek)and animal life that has found a way to survive.
One of the wonders of this desert is the endangered pupfish,
a fish that can survive in the saline waters of Salt Creek. You can see literally thousands of these tiny fish in the clear water.
The White Man was the one who named the place Death Valley. Their initial passage through the desert on their way west in search of gold was not an easy one, and life in the desert has not become that much easier since then.
But the fact that the White People had such a negative impression of the place did not prevent them from eventually trying to exploit the resources of the area. Borax, talc and silver were mined. The Harmony Borax Works was known for their 20 mule teamsthat were used to transport the Borax out of the valley. Development in the desert got to the point where they even built a resort (still in operation as a high-end hotel, The Inn at Furnace Creek), and a railroad line to bring people into the area.But the only things that survive today in the desert from the non-Native American perspective are for the tourist, a tourist who is interested in experiencing the natural wonder of the place, and perhaps even learn something, while willing at the same time to tolerate the extreme weather conditions.
The only places of commercial operation remaining are at Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, and Furnace Creek.The once thriving mining towns are now ghost towns that are only visited by the tourists. We went to the ghost town of Rhyolite just outside the park boundary across the state border in Nevada.
The National Park Service manages the park out of a location very close to Furnace Creek, with a Visitor Center at Furnace Creek itself. It is good to note that the Visitor Center has been upgraded over the years to operate in an environmentally conscious manner.
Death Valley was declared a National Monument, i.e., a protected area, in 1933 and became a National Park only in 1994. While the coming of the White Man and the mining operations in the 19th century began to change the Timbisha’s way of life, the designation of the place as a National Monument actually hastened the loss of their land. The small numbers that remained finally ended up, unofficially, on a little patch of land near Furnace Creek for many years. It was only in the 1980s that they finally were officially recognized as a tribe. They continued to occupy the small space they had near Furnace Creek, but also continued to battle the federal government for more of their land in the courts. It was only in the late 1990s, well after the formation of the park, that they got additional land for their use in the park. These days the park service has formed a partnership with the tribe when if comes to running of the park to ensure that resources within the park and the Timbisha’s traditional homeland are protected and enhanced.
The struggles of the Native Americans is an ongoing story. Consider recent news from South Dakota. I cannot help thinking that because of our greed we are not good at learning our lessons from history.
This was the first place we went to in Death Valley. The crater is located well north of the main gathering place for tourists arriving at the park. We had to get off the main road that runs through the park and drive to a more remote section of the valley. It was well worth the detour!
Ubehebe Crater was formed by a volcanic explosion, but is was an explosion of steam rather than lava. The explosion was caused by the underground magma meeting up with the groundwater and sending the water upwards as steam.
It was extremely windy when we arrived at the crater, and the occasional gusts of wind had you spread your feet to seek some kind of a balance. You were completely exposed to the elements along the rim and there was nothing to support you! It was extremely hard going, trudging up the hill on the loose sand (which, on the other hand, seemed to have the benefit of anchoring you and preventing you from getting blown away into the crater) as we climbed along the rim to get a view of Little Hebe crater. When we got to that point, rather than return to the parking lot directly, and in spite of the challenge of hiking under those conditions, we decided to complete the loop around Ubehebe crater. I had to work up my nerve to walk along the edge (which under these conditions appears to be narrower than it really is!). The wind, and the surface of the trail, which looked loose and a little unstable in some parts, did not help. But if others could do it, why not not us? And we did it!
We did not try to descend the bottom of the crater. It is considered an easy hike going down, but strenuous coming back up. It was an effort I was not prepared to undertake under the conditions, especially considering that there were other destinations we wanted to get to in the park.
Here are some pictures from Ubehebe Crater.
Against the wind! This is in the parking lot. You can see the place we climbed to to view Little Hebe in the distance.Early view of Ubehebe crater.Bracing against the wind while climbing towards the viewpoint for Little Hebe. The parking lot that we have climbed from is in the distance.Hikers on the far slope who have gone beyond the stop for Little Hebe.A view of the trail from a lookout. We had some nice cloud conditions during the hike that lit up different parts of the landscape at different times.Angela walking back from the far side of Little Hebe.Little Hebe from a distance.The parking lot and trails to the bottom can be seen in the distance.A sandy patch of trail that terminated at the edge of the crater!Vegetation on the trail.Towards the end of the hike.
Death Valley, located in California, is the largest national park in the United States outside of the parks in Alaska. It is an absolutely stunning place!
The visit to Carson City in Nevada was an afterthought that occurred only after we had already started our vacation, after we had left San Francisco on our multi-day drive through California and Nevada. Our visit there strengthens my opinion that a vacation experience is not just about going to well known places and looking for the extraordinary. Sometimes you can enjoy the simple experiences and things that would not be considered noteworthy in the normal course of events.
We had spent the night in Reno and were about to head south in the morning, along the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe, on our way to Mammoth Lakes for our stopover for that night. The thought had occurred to me that it would be nice to take a short detour to Carson City if possible just for the heck of it. After all, Carson City is the capital of the state of Nevada. The only other item of note as far as we were concerned was the fact that Mark Twain had spent a few years of his life there. Still, we were curious. Perhaps there was something new to learn by visiting the town.
But a detour to Carson City from Lake Tahoe would take up additional time just for the driving even though the two places were close by, especially if we wanted to visit the entire eastern shore of the lake (which would involve driving back and forth between the two places). We could save time visiting just the top half or the bottom half of the east shore of Lake Tahoe, while cutting east-west between the two destinations just once at the half-way mark.
We awoke to threatening skies on the morning of the drive. This was a view from our hotel room in Reno.Since driving on the winding roads in the area of the lake in the rain was not likely to be fun, we made a quick decision to head straight down to Carson City and to try to get to Lake Tahoe later in the day.
Carson City looked quite underwhelming when we arrived. It looked small and unimposing. It did not look like the capital of a state to me! The city appeared to have one main drag, Carson Street, that went from north to south, with a few smaller streets parallel to it, and others cutting across in a grid. I could see no big buildings typical of a big town, let alone a capital city. The houses were modest in size and older. There was hardly any traffic on the main road. The place certainly looked laid back, and as if it had seen better times.
It was time for us to learn more about Carson City. We drove down Carson Street to the Visitor Center to get information. We learned that Carson City was named after Kit Carson, and that one of the important historical markers in town was the mint which had now been converted into a section of the Nevada State Museum. We got a map of the city and a description of a walking tour of about 2.5 miles that covered all the noteworthy sights in town. (Yes, the town was small enough to be covered that easily!) The path taken during the walk was called the Kit Carson Trail.The kind lady at the visitor center told us that we could park almost anywhere, except at the visitor center where the meter lady would make an occasional appearance. There was ample parking in front of the houses on the side streets. It was certainly a nice change to be driving in a city where one could relax and not worry about some impatient person who wanted to get in front of you, or about finding a place to park.
We had a choice of going to the museum or taking a walk along parts of the Kit Carson trail. We started with the walk since it was not raining at that time. The main drag, Carson Street, was mostly empty of traffic.Many storefronts on the street looked like they were shuttered down and in a state of disuse.We walked past the obligatory casino in town. It appeared to have seen better days (and this was true of most of the casinos we saw in small towns in Nevada).You can seen the sign for an abandoned casino next to Cactus Jack’s casino in the picture below.The following building was the only one of note in that section of the strip.The side streets had an equally empty feel about them.You would have a hard time believing that you were in a capital city.
But in very short order we found ourselves on the grounds of the Nevada State Capitol.We did indeed see a few people in somewhat formal clothes walk in and out of the building, indicating that some sort of business of note was taking place in these offices. This contrasted with the feel of the rest of the town itself. It did not seem to take itself that seriously!
Our next stop was on one of the side streets off the main road, at an art gallery that Angela had found in the city guide. The rain was beginning to fall steadily at this point, but we were OK since we had our rain gear with us. I saw this other art gallery on the way. It seemed to blend in well with the “small” nature of the place.The building pictured below was our destination for this visit.They were having an exhibition of entries from a statewide art competition.On our way out of the exhibition, the lady who was manning the information table (a turn of phrase that might be considered inappropriate by some :-)) noted that she spent a lot of her time giving tours at the museum. She then gave us a strong recommendation to spend some time there. Seeing that the rain was not slowing down, we decided that this was indeed what we would do.
We continued our walk along the Kit Carson trail (marked in blue on the sidewalk) on our way to the museum. The skies began to clear up a little bit (temporarily, as it turned out) as we walked.We passed the building where Mark Twain had lived for a few years. (Mark Twain actually followed his brother, Orion Clemens, the first Secretary to the new government of the Territory of Nevada, to Carson City.) The building appeared to be owned by an Insurance Company!
We continued to walk the back roads of the city.Closer to the museum, on Carson Street, we passed memorials for the Lincoln Highway, the first coast to coast highway, and the old Pony Express, the paths of both of which used to run through Carson City.We arrived at the museum, passing by the old mint building on our way to the entrance. The visit turned out to be quite interesting.They had a big section in the museum about the minting operations that are a part of the history of the city. This mint worked primarily with silver, and it seems that the minting operations only lasted a few years. This is a picture of a coin press machine which is still operational and used occasionally.They had a reconstruction of a mine at the lowest level of the museum. This covered all aspects of the mining process including the construction of the underground structures, the extraction and supply processes, and the safety elements of the operation. This is a picture of a slide that was used to move material from one level to another below it within the mine.Silver and gold were mined in these parts, and mining used to be a significant source of employment for people.
There was a section on natural history, including displays about animals and birds, and the about the geology of the area. The place has a history of significant volcanic activity. They tackled the more recent history of human settlement in that area. European arrival in Nevada is actually a very recent happening (in a relative sense). They had a separate section in the museum put together from the Native American perspective (which can be quite different than the White Man’s way of thinking). There is some tension even today between the Native Americans and the “modern world” in many regards. The Native Americans try to live in harmony with their surroundings whereas modern man was (and still is) more intent on taking control over and exploiting their surroundings and resources. We found out that whereas modern man has no hesitation or compunctions about digging up ancient Indian burial sites to study and try to understand life in olden times, the Native Americans believe that their ancestors are to be left alone in their quest for eternal peace in the afterlife. Even though I have my own scientific curiosity, I know where my sympathies lie.
The rain had returned with a vengeance as we prepared to leave the museum. We headed out to a cafe that had been recommended to us for lunch. It was called the L. A. Bakery Cafe and Eatery.The place was a delightful surprise. The family had opened the cafe in 2012, selling healthy foods with a light Mediterranean touch. The business seemed to have caught on and become a success with the local population. From the plaques and other hangings on the walls, I gathered that they had received recognition from the local community and accolades from the local business groups for what they was doing. They were in the process of expanding their business. The food was really healthy and tasty. (I wish I had taken a picture of my salad!)
It was still raining after lunch. Given that we had stayed longer than we had anticipated in town, and since the weather was not really cooperating, we gave up on making the side trip to Lake Tahoe and decided to take the most direct route for Mammoth Lakes.
Since we had some more time on our hands because of the change in plans, I suggested that we visit the railroad museum, one of the two more significant tourist destinations in town noted in the tour guides (the other one was the state museum). We found out as we were driving towards the museum that we had arrived in town on the one day of the week that it was closed. We had to satisfy ourselves with a drive past in the rain.Then it was on to Mammoth Lakes for an earlier arrival than originally planned. The weather kept changing during the drive. We even saw a rainbow at some point,but later on, as we climbed into the mountains, we also ran into a few heavy snowstorms that came out of nowhere and presented some fairly challenging driving conditions every once in a while. But I will leave the stories of our further adventures during this trip for another day.
Some of the more memorable moments from a vacation trip that involves sightseeing seem to take place when you take a chance and experience something unexpected or quirky, perhaps something that is different and unique, something that tickles your brain cells in a manner that you are not expecting.
And so it was with our visit to the Longstreet Inn and Casino in Nevada.
We were on a week long vacation, part of which involved a drive down the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Reno, NV, to Death Valley in California. We were spending two days in Death Valley, noted to be the largest National Park in the United States outside of Alaska (more about the experience of Death Valley in a separate blog). It was towards the end of our first day exploring Death Valley, and the sun was setting as we turned onto the road that would get us to Amargosa Valley in the south. We were headed for the hotel we were using for our stay in that area. A half-hour drive out of the park through quickly darkening skies got us to the T-junction at Death Valley Junction at the end of California’s Route 190. We turned left at this point and headed further east towards the border with Nevada.
As we drove through the emptiness of the now dark western evening, we started thinking more about our final destination for the day. We were trying to figure out how much longer we needed to drive to get to Amargosa Valley and our hotel. We could not get our GPS device to recognize the address that we had for the place. There was nothing of interest by the roadside and no landmarks that we could use to guide us on.
We arrived at the border of California and Nevada about seven miles down the road. We saw some bright lights ahead of us to left side of the road. There is nothing else in sight. As we got closer we noticed the flashing neon lights advertising an inn and the casino. It was our destination! The location of the town of Amargaso Valley was still many miles away according to our navigation tools. Apparently our destination was on the “outskirts” of the town, in the middle of nowhere.I entered the building through the door leading to the casino. It felt like I had entered a strange place. The lighting and decor was a little off. In front of me was a mannequin of a man on a motorcycle. He appeared to be wearing sunglasses. Off to the right I could see and hear the slot machines of the casino. There were people sitting in front of some of the machines, seemingly staring at them blankly, lost in their own world. Off to the left was a restaurant, Jack’s Cafe, and and next to it, separated by a passageway that led to the hotel rooms, a counter behind which lay a convenience store. In front of me was a bar that did not look too busy. There were little antique statues and doodads around the place that looked like they were from the 50s. I must have stepped into a time machine and landed in a far away time and place.
Some other folks who were checking into the hotel asked for the nearest gas station and were told that they needed to drive 17 miles down the road into town to get to one. We also ran into some folks who were staying at the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, another otherworldly establishment down the road at Death Valley Junction. Apparently the restaurant at our hotel was the only place to get dinner at for miles around!
Our hotel room was comfortable enough, but it also had a somewhat worn out and dated feel to it. The soap and shampoo that they supplied were quite basic and they had not bothered to give us enough towels. The wifi signal was poor (and the internet connection finally stopped working on the second night). The commode was leaking slowly and the flush going off every few seconds. (It never got fixed during our stay!) But we had to take all of this in stride and in the right spirit. We were in the middle of nowhere. In a way it was also a part of the holiday experience.
The restaurant itself had a well-used air to it. The carpeting and seating, and the menu items, were typical Americana. The pace of service was slow. The two young Hispanic girls who were serving us had a pleasant and unhurried air about them. I could not help thinking that these youngsters must have traveled a long distance to get to work. I wondered how close their school was to where they lived.
We enjoyed our drinks while waiting for the food, trying to be patient, listening to the sound of the slot machines in the background from the casino close by. There was the faint odor of stale cigarette smoke hanging in the air. Once in a while, folks from some of the other tables in the restaurant would get up and walk to the bar to get more drinks to consume while they waited for their food. When dinner finally arrived we all dug in with gusto. It was standard American grub, but it was quite tasty. Our wait had been rewarded!
The next morning, I stepped out of the hotel to get a better look at the lay of the land.We were indeed in the middle of nowhere.There were mountains off to the north, and one could see the trailer park where you could rent some place for your trailer instead of getting a room in the hotel for the night.The border of the two states was within walking distance of the hotel.On the second day of our stay in Death Valley we decided to have dinner at a resort in the park itself in order to avoid the slow process at the restaurant in the hotel. After dinner, we drove through the dark and arrived somewhat late at the hotel. We went straight up to our room to chill out and get some rest.
We left our hotel very early the next morning since we had a long ride ahead of us that day. The sun was rising rapidly across the plains and over the distant hills to our east, and beginning to light up the mountains to the west.On our way out of the hotel after checking out, I stopped to take the following picture of a plaque that talked about Jack Longstreet (click on the picture to expand it). He appears to have been an interesting character from the wild west. Perhaps I will read a little more about him.Our stay at the Longstreet Casino and Inn was a unique experience. I enjoyed the visit back to a different time and place, to a place in the desert where things appear to move at a different pace, a world where people probably have a very different way of life than people in the cities and towns, a place where life is in all likelihood somewhat harder than ours. Experiences like this help you further appreciate the diversity of people and experiences that build up this land. Everyone has their own story.
As a family that likes to spend time outdoors walking and hiking in the midst of nature, we frequently find ourselves atop different natural formations during many of our outings. Here are some pictures taken during a vacation in Scotland. This first shot is atop a small hillock in Pentland Hills, just outside of Edinburgh.
This cow was observing us from atop another of the hills in the park.A climb up yet another of the hillsfound us atop a peak with a cairn.The following picture is of us atop Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.Some of us feel the urge to explore any and all random hilltops that appear within our field of view. So it was that, while we were at Hushinish in the Outer Hebrides, and in the midst of gale force winds and pouring rain, the kids clambered atop a hillock that we sighted in the distance in order to see what lay beyond. (Can you see them in the picture below?) The effort awarded them an unobstructed view of the Atlantic Ocean through the storm.And this was the view of the North Sea from atop a cliff near the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse at the northern tip of the Outer Hebrides.We climbed a hill behind the town of Ullapool on the western coast of mainland Scotland. It was a long way to the top.We got a view of Loch Achall (which had been hidden from view so far) from atop the hill.This is a picture of Loch Broom and the town of Ullapool from the hilltop.The picture below includes The Minch, the strait that separates the mainland from the Outer Herbrides.Finally, here is a picture of us atop a cliff at Durness, along the northern coast of mainland Scotland.There is almost always a thrill when one looks out over the distance from atop natural formations.