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Desert Solitary

Crystal Springs in the Ash Meadow National Wildlife Refuge, image
Photo caption
Crystal Spring is one of the oases in Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in the Amargosa Valley, east of Death Valley.

Between the neon glare of Vegas and popular Death Valley National Park beats the slow pulse of desert. It’s mostly Mojave, one of the world’s hottest and most beautiful. Its annual 4-inch rainfall defines arid. But there’s a lot to "drink in"— from the "don’t-fence-me-in" culture of a burgeoning high-desert town to hidden oases, a winery, an artsy ghost town, and the ancient blue waters of seeps and springs.

This rattlesnake starts to have a hiss fit inches from my right hiking boot on Ice Box Trail. I back off, but stand my ground amid Red Rock Canyon’s baked-clay slabs. The sage-green coil is a litmus test for desert rats. Guess who slithers off first under the rabbitbrush.

I’m not above an instant hotfoot in reverse through the mesquite and cholla. But how often does a city dweller get to hear a rattlesnake speak its mind? Blame my surge of bravado on the mind-altering wafts of warm sage and the hot bands of red and purple light that dominate the desert’s spectrum. Where others see venom, thorns, and parched sky, desert aficionados see adventure, history, culture, a place of terrible beauty.

On this stretch of Mojave desert, the farther you get from the artificial glow of Las Vegas, the more these things emerge from the expanses of tumbleweed and the mountain-ringed vistas.

Old Glory slow-dances on the thermals, beckoning visitors to "the new heart of the Old West." Welcome to Pahrump, 65 miles west of Las Vegas, on State Route 160. Joshua trees—sentinels from the Bible—point the way. Stay a while; pitch some coins at Terrible’s or the Saddle West; stroll the links at one of two 18-hole golf courses; play tic-tac-toe with a chicken.

Pahrump, Paiute for "water on the rock," sits on an aquifer, a resource that nurtures an exploding population. The midday light, bald-faced as a bare lightbulb, does little to flatter a roadside forest of signs—ads for campaigns, for doors, windows, the whole house. But Pahrumpians pride themselves on not having many dos and don’ts. This may explain Pahrump’s helter-skelter feel—fleets of mobile and model homes parked and grew roots.

Pahrump Valley Vineyard is an island of inspired architecture. The stucco-white building with archways and a Moorish-blue tile roof sits on a landscaped slope facing the westward gaze of 11,919-foot Mt. Charleston.

Sampling varietal wines was not foreseen as a must-do in the high desert, but the ambience in Nevada’s only winery is, like other finds along this route, pleasant, unexpected. In 1991, wild mustangs gorged on the grapevines. So the cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay are pressed from California grapes until new root stock takes hold. The vineyard’s elegant, Continental-style restaurant offers fine dining to go with its fine wines.

I landed (figuratively) in Pahrump the day Art Bell signed off the air. Art who? Marge Taylor, executive director of the Pahrump Chamber of Commerce, rolls her eyes. She’s just gotten off the line with a reporter from Time. Bell broadcasted live from his home to 15 million radio listeners on conspiracy theories, UFOs, and the paranormal, until last October. He couldn’t explain why he had to resign, so big news outlets were hounding Marge for information. She had little to give and even less patience with the stories of weirdness that Pahrump seems to generate. But ask her what to see and do and she is as helpful as the local chaplain, loading you with flyers.

Marge sends me through a triangle of basin and range country with broad valleys sweeping up rocky scarp. I see fewer people than live on my city block. Now, this is desert. Long, lonesome, rugged stretches, where the imagination gets a workout on bone-colored hills that look like hide. The lizard-green vegetation is as unkempt as dreadlocks, but you round a bend and it rises on a fault-blocked ridge like scales and armor, spiked with light. Look, up ahead, petrified armadillo!

When my eyes aren’t sweeping the emptiness for trompe l’oeil, they’re following Marge’s directions. They take me to: the contemplative Cathedral Canyon, a gorge with flood-cut walls and eroded pillars studded with religious icons from Central America, most notably Christ of the Andes; China Ranch Date Farm, with a subterranean entry down a narrow wash opening to the Edenic lushness of a date palm oasis; and to the cure.

This last is found at Tecopa Hot Springs, where mineral-rich waters are piped into deep aqua basins behind a funky, old, cinderblock compound across from an RV park. What this free public facility lacks in luxury, it makes up for in lighting, cleanliness, and emollient waters.

Luxury comes in the form of sunset over the Nopah Range. The only other car on the road speeds by and turns sharply to park on a rocky prominence. Observing desert etiquette, I find my own ledge and watch it, too: the eastern sky igniting in Day-Glo shades of red and lavender, only to drain to star-prickling blackness.

On my way into Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a coyote poses for a snapshot, then saunters off to feast on jackrabbit and sweet screwbean mesquite pods. Anyway, I’ve come to see the endangered Cyprinodon nevadensis mionectes,the pupfish.

Refuge Manager Eric Hopson and I follow the quarter-mile-long boardwalk along a spring channel to Crystal Spring. Thirty seeps and springs in the refuge discharge 10,000 gallons of water per minute, transforming crackling scrub into marshy wetland. From the dense growth of cattails, a Gambel’s quail and marsh wren call—two of the migrating songbirds that stop to drink and browse this oasis. A resident Northern Harrier takes flight and four red-shafted flickers scribe ellipses overhead, one stopping for me to train binoculars on its brilliant scarlet nape. Under Eric’s gaze, two withered plants turn into the rare and sensitive Tecopa’s birdbeak and spring-loving centaury, two of the 20 endemic species on the refuge.

When we reach the small sand-bottom pond with the pupfish, if I block out the dry salt grass and ashen ground, I might be staring at a swatch of Mediterranean Sea, here in the ruddy desert.

I need Eric’s eyes to spot the inch-long fish that are at first highly unspectacular in appearance (except during spring spawning, when the hopeful male bedecks himself in luminous blue). As Eric expands on how these Ice Age remnants swam at the feet of mastodons and saber-toothed tigers, how you can tell pupfish from nonnative mosquito fish or sailfin mollies by the former’s fast-moving pectoral fins and chunkier appearance, they cease to look like fish bait.

Nearby, sun sizzles like specks of quicksilver on the equally blue Crystal Reservoir, refuge to the white-faced ibis, great blue and green herons, egrets, bitterns, coots, teals, and other waterfowl and wading birds.

A piece of Death Valley National Park, Devils Hole, lies on the refuge, a couple miles from the reservoir. It’s an eerie moonscape, encircled by a barb-wire-crowned Hurricane fence. Another species of pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) swims in this patch of filmy, navy-blue water that seeps up from rock. In the ’60s, three divers illegally dove into this underground lake. Only one came out alive and the other two were never found. A flyer with a USGS-mapped cross section of the underground waters reveals the digestive tract-like chamber that swallowed them.

It’s dusk when I leave the solitude of Ash Meadows and behold in the distance, at the foot of the blackened Funeral Mountains, a glowing red ember. A UFO? No, Longstreet Casino & Inn, the nightlife of the Amargosa Valley, especially weekends when the music is live and the inn’s Nebraska Steakhouse is open. For the non-gambler, its pool, Jacuzzi, and duck pond facing the rumpled Funerals are antidote to dust-bitten skin and sun-parched eyes.

Next morning, from Longstreet I head north and west through Beatty, passing a low-level nuclear waste storage facility. In less enlightened times, the facility disposed of waste into the soil, which now contains reportedly harmless amounts of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Off to the northeast looms Yucca Mountain, future burial ground for 77,000 tons of radioactive waste—if the feds get their way and environmentalists don’t. And on the brittle sigh of the wind, I hear the whir of flying saucers—Area 51 lies on the far side of Yucca Mountain.

How ironic to turn west from these specters and have a blinding vision of The Last Supper.Actually, it’s an artist’s vision. Belgian sculptor A. Szukalski’s 1984 rendition of Christ and the Twelve Apostles is a stunning white apparition rising from the base of chaparral-covered Bonanza Mountain in the ghost town, Rhyolite. The large plaster figures mounted on a stage are part of a magnificent open-air museum just beneath the crumbling City of Golden Dreams. Among the modern works in this sculpture garden are Lady Desert,a rhyolite-pink cubist nude, and Belgian expressionist Fred Bervoerts’s tall silhouette of a miner, pick in hand, followed by his pet penguin. They all add up to the outsider’s eye for humor and poignancy in the American West.

As I leave Rhyolite, passing the ubiquitous bullet-riddled traffic sign, I think how some artist might work this western icon into something called Sagebrush Rebellion 101.

This close to Death Valley, it’s silly to resist a stop at Furnace Creek. Lunch on the warm tamarisk-shaded oasis is perfect. But, beautiful as it is, the much-visited national park clashes with the solitary mood of this desert trip.

The Amargosa Opera House, at Death Valley Junction, does not. It adjoins the Amargosa Hotel that sits crumbling like a sun-bleached bone—an old adobe with 1920s character. I’ve long wanted to see the performance of the hotel and opera’s legendary owner, Marta Becket. A New York ballet dancer, she defected to the desert 30 years ago.

Marta, now in her mid-seventies, still gracefully kicks lanky legs over her head and dances on pointe. She and her partner, Tom Willett, perform a ballet-pantomime to a small but regular house. But 30 years ago, the first audience failed to show. So artist Marta emblazoned the walls and ceiling with vibrant murals of a permanent one—Renaissance royalty, nuns, monks, gypsies, revelers, and cherubs. A docent-style exposé on her creation precedes her performance.

The last day’s morning light has adjusted from rose to gold, and as usual I own the road, 190 North, until Pyramid Pass. A piece of buff-hided desert breaks free, grows hooves, and steps into the road. I halt the Jeep, jump out, and from 30 feet apart, the rarely sighted ram and I lock eyes. It’s a brief freeze frame, but long enough for me to admire his proudly curling horns, the crown of Ovis canadensis nelsonii.With the poise of a sovereign, the desert bighorn blends back into his leathery kingdom, seeking his herd or a distant spring. He gazes back every few steps. But I’m not moving for a long time. Except to step out of the snakeskin.

Going Around in Circles in the Desert

This route, leaving from and returning to Las Vegas,consists of two smaller loops within a bigger one. The driving involves some unpaved roads. Although most of them are well-graded gravel that is manageable with two-wheel drive, you might consider a four-wheel-drive vehicle more comfortable and—if there’s any chance of wet weather—reassuring. Depending on how much off-road driving you do, expect to clock about 700 miles. Bring AAA’s Death Valley and Southern Nevada Section map.

Day 1

• Leave Las Vegas by way of SR 160 West to Red Rock Canyon. Take one of the hikes along the Scenic Loop drive.
• Continue on 160 West to Pahrump. Stay at Days Inn, (702) 727-5100, or Saddle West, (800) GEDDY-UP. Tour (and dine at) Pahrump Valley Vineyard, (800) 368-WINE.

Day 2

• Take the loop drive out of Pahrump, following directions on the flyer from the chamber of commerce, (800) 633-WEST (next to Days Inn).

Day 3

• Leave Pahrump on 160 West. Turn left at Bell Vista Road and follow signs for Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, (775) 372-5435.
• Visit Crystal Pool, Crystal Reservoir (where you can picnic), Devils Hole, and other points of interest.
• Leave refuge by west end and drive about 8 miles to Longstreet Inn & Casino, (702) 372-1777. Enjoy dinner at its Nebraska Steakhouse (open Saturday only).

Day 4

• Drive north from Longstreet on SR 127/373 to Amargosa, then west on 95 through Beatty to Rhyolite. Visit the ghost town and the sculpture garden at the foot of Bonanza Mountain.
• Take SR 374 into Death Valley National Park. If weather and your vehicle permit, enter the park by spectacular Titus Canyon.

Day 5

• Check into the Amargosa Hotel, (760) 852-4441, at Death Valley Junction. Treat yourself to a banana split at Serendipity Ice Cream Parlor & Sandwich Shop, next to the hotel, where you’re sure to meet almost everyone staying in town. See Marta Becket’s and Tom Willett’s evening performance at the Amargosa Opera House (call for schedule).

Photography courtesy of Stan Shebs/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in January 1999. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.