Amargosa Hotel sign Blue porch ceiling Wardrobe mural Kitchen doors and reflection Bird on a chain The seers Foyer mural with skylight Blank picture frame mural Glowing peacock fan headboard mural Room with castoff relics and noose

I wasn’t prepared for the noose hanging in the abandoned room, the peacock fan headboard with the strange glow, the untraceable bridal reflections in the swinging kitchen doors, and the cold and unwelcoming feel. It was the cold of an influenza winter from the perspective of the survivors, clinging to life in wooden shacks with newspaper stuffed in the floorboards, the cold of an ancient family feud, all the details of wrongs forgotten and only the mistrust remaining.

The Amargosa Opera House and Hotel is located in Death Valley Junction. It’s an inauspicious place on the eastern side of Death Valley right where Hwy 127 and 190 meet. It’s close to the Nevada border and could be a jumping off point for the Death Valley National Park, a tourist destination that attracts nearly 1 million people per year. But the only jumping off seems to be to an in-between shadowy place where landlocked souls reach out as pennies of light and cold well fingers in the cracking stucco rooms.

The Pacific Coast Borax Company constructed the town, a whistle rail stop connecting mining regions. The Amargosa Hotel was originally called Corkhill Hall and had a dormitory for miners, 23 room hotel, store, and dining room. The hotel and rest of the town fell into decline in the mid-century, as these things do, and might have gone the way of the desert except for Marta Beckett, the woman who had a flat tire in this desolate place in the late 60s and stayed, breathing life into the old hotel, or maybe kicking up the dust of a life that had never quite expired. Her story is a charming one, and I won’t try to tell it here. She stayed and took over the hotel, creating an opera house in the desert and opening the hotel rooms. The place is covered with murals she painted, and she performed on the small stage for over 40 years. I learned about her several years ago and went there out of a pilgrimage to eccentricity, an admiration for this colorful outpost in such a harsh landscape.

The place is haunted, my friend told me as we were driving toward it. Really haunted, she said, like, it’s been on that Ghost Adventures show. In my mind I pictured a friendly little ghost, knocking in the middle of the night and maybe stealing hats, adding to the quirkiness of the place. When I pulled up and saw the salt scorched courtyard, it’s own pioneer desert to cross, I knew I was on a different journey. 

We walked down the plush carpeted hallway, part of a bad remodel from the 70s, and into the open rooms. I didn’t know why the rooms were open and felt a fear creep up that we would be caught snooping around. When I realized that the rooms were left open for ghost hunters like ourselves I knew the feeling of trespass was coming from somewhere else. We saw the peacock room and the cracked cherub room. We saw the empty picture frame mural and the demented garden mimes. My friend pointed out the blue ceiling on the porch, in the south meant to ward off spirits. The crying child sealed the deal. This wasn’t a ghostly wail. This was the cry of a terrified three-year old, dragged along with a family staying at the hotel. His cry in those blue corridors was haunting enough, but it was his words, “We can’t stay here” over and over that told me he was onto something. 

How had Marta Beckett stayed here for so many years? I can understand the draw of desert solace, but there seemed to be a different draw here. She must have had her own understanding with the place and its spirits after so long. There was a performance going on at the opera house, and we were allowed to go in, let in by a friendly and earthly manager. We slipped into the back seats, smelling like campfire and desert dust after days in Death Valley. The small, well-dressed crowd nodded their heads along to show tunes and the performer reminiscing about his days on Broadway. Murals crowded the walls, filling in the audience in this barren place, a place to feed the soul.

Welcome to Searles Valley Sentinels Distant Spire Lakebed and Mountains Rockburst Well Balanced The Cave

Take Highway 178 east from the Kern River Valley. Watch the landscape shift from California golden homestead to pioneer death trap. Look for the power spot. The Trona Pinnacles are a geologic anomaly where calcium-rich groundwater met alkaline lake water  over thousands of years. The result is a ghost lake with alien spires. Look hard and you can see where the water line used to be. It’s the only hint of water you’ll get. Pioneers coming from Death Valley saw the Searles Lake on a map and headed there, desperate for water. They were sorely disappointed.

I went out the first time on the advice of a friend. My car broke down out there, he told me. The closest town was Trona, the mining town 12 miles away. There’s no cell phone reception in that remote spot of San Bernardino County. I went off-roading in my Volvo, he admitted. I kept that story in mind. No way would I leave the road. But the desert sun is bright and there are roads that fade into sand and cactus. When my car got stuck, off road, Trona was still the closest town, 12 miles away. There was still no cell phone reception. Had I made this happen by thinking so hard about the one thing I was trying to avoid? Psychology 101. Or did the spot really have some blind and potent draw? The belching boom from the mine works in Trona sounded over the landscape every few minutes. I could see them like a mirage against the mountains. At least I had plenty of water. I hiked out to the road.

Silver Dollar Keeper of the Elephant Porch  Jug Investor Needed The Owl Hotel Marker Desert Rock and Corrugated Metal Old Grocery Sundries Frozen Foods Meat

Red Mountain is a time capsule. Daily life in a high desert mining town. Pop. 130, but the saloon is shut down. The grocery store is only of value as a piece of decay, for exploring old wrecks. It’s a deep freeze of memory, little motions among the frozen foods that make up life.

The gold boom came in 1896 and then again in 1984. One of the richest silver strikes in the area happened in between. The Owl Hotel was “Where the action was!” thanks to “the girls of the line.”

Here’s my plan: I leave L.A. I buy the Silver Dollar, the old saloon. I book some bands, and people come out. The dance floor feels useful again. It could happen. Look at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown. 

The historical markers in Red Mountain have references we can no longer follow. Maybe someone can, some old-timer who can tell us what the elephant was and why the dedicated bartenders of the Silver Dollar were keepers of it. 

We can hold onto this little thread of history while it frays and the details snap and break in the high desert winter. They turn into pieces of scattered metal and rock. We can edge our own history into this. The Silver Dollar can be patched up and re-stocked. It can be a destination for a certain kind of tourist. There can once again be a keeper of the elephant. 

In the Shadow of the Mine Sleep and Death Keeping Company with the Joshua Tree Rings of Life River Rock Grave Rocking Horse Working until the End Johannesburg Mine Works Abandoned Teddy Bear

Johannesburg, CA, one in a cluster of ghost towns where Hwy 14 and Hwy 395 meet, at the southernmost edge of the eastern Sierra Nevadas.  I had just come off the heels of Randsburg, a quirky town with characters and rusted equipment and dreams going to waste. Johannesburg threw me for a loop with its families and double wides, kids riding bikes. 

We came across the cemetery a few streets into the neighborhood hills. The expanse of graves about equalled the town’s plot of houses. It’s a hardscrabble life and then you die.The child graves were the worst. Tiny mounded piles of desert rocks, plastic toys, stuffed animals. They were a stone’s throw into a time machine of survival and remembrance. The mine works were right there on the edge of the cemetery. Quiet and rusting. 

I knew about mining on the East Coast, along the Appalachian vein of coal that runs through West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. My mother’s grandfather died of black lung. My great grandma’s sons would spend the night drinking only to be dragged down the hill to the mines by my great grandma. The cold and dark and hangover must have been brutal. Eking out a living. Stay in school, kids. 

California seemed different to me. All that sun. All that promise and flicker of precious metal. Today there was a bitter wind in the high desert. The graves were cobbled together out of what was at hand, an iron bed frame, lacquered tree slices, mounded stones, simple welded crosses. There were plastic flowers stuck in the dirt and Joshua trees standing guard. Rusted equipment and American flags dotted the place.

I wondered how many people felt like that promise had been an illusion, how many people had forgotten it ever existed. Johannesburg was just home now, hard to imagine another.

The cemetery was beautiful in its way, informal, lovingly dug and stacked by people who were close, knew your honorary town title and your horse’s nickname.

We were frozen. We got back in the truck and blasted the heat. We headed to Randsburg for dinner.

End of the Trail post office Good company Filling a need Randsburg houses along the gulch Randsburg chapel The Joint Ready for the parade White House Saloon

I learned about Randsburg from a friend who went out to dirtbike in the desert. He and his dirtbiking pal were unprepared, no money, tools, food, or water. They were relying on their manliness to save them. When they couldn’t get back up the hill they had gone down and it was getting dark, they saw lights in the distance and followed them. 

That’s how I thought of Randsburg—ghostly lights across an expanse. Old timers in a limping saloon.

When I went finally made it out there it was July 4 weekend. The sun was so bright it stabbed. Rusted metal was everywhere. In the White House Saloon they served up icy cold Mojave Red beer in a frosted pitcher. Across the street at The Joint, another watering hole, a local named Billy Ray told my friends and me about the gold mining equipment he had invented. We were skeptical, but he showed us the prototype hitched to the back of his truck out front. We played pool and talked to the bartender.

To call Randsburg a ghost town is wrong. It’s a living ghost town that continued to exist on its own character long after the gold dried up. I have fantasies of buying a mining shack here, fixing it up. I could leave my Los Angeles apartment and visit Randsburg on the weekends. I would buy a pot-bellied stove, write a novel, and learn to make venison jerky.  Every Monday morning I would come back to L.A. Eventually, the city would start to feel more like the ghostly vision,  layer of brown smog over a sea of cars and palm trees flashing in the constant sun.

Slice of Utah Desert Cliffs Kodachrome Rock Formations Walk up Campsite Alcove and Joshua Trees Coyote Landscape Wide Open Desert

The Red Rock Canyon State Park is a little slice of Utah in the California Desert. Take Highway 14 through the Mojave until just about where it hits Highway 395, that road pocketed with California wonders that edges along the eastern Sierra Nevadas. You’ll think you’re in the middle of nowhere. You are. But pay attention for the heartbeat of desert life, the mining town that sprang up around the vein of silver, the corroded cemetery built on a prayer of tungsten. You won’t have to listen too hard for the frenzied ululations of feasting coyotes at night, pitched under a blanketed moon.

A friend and I headed up for the last camping trip of the season in mid-November. I picked the spot for its jumping off possibilities to a series of ghost towns in the area, some more ghostly than others. Some, like Randsburg with its operating saloon and general store, quite alive and well thank you. Our campsite was a walk-up site 150 yards from the dirt road. Aside from the fact that I had been dying to explore the area and thought I might not get another chance until spring, I have to admit I also wanted to use some new camping equipment that was burning a hole in my garage storage locker. We set up my new REI Alcove Shelter with wind walls, alternately cursing and laughing at what seemed like such a flimsy set-up. Sheltered from the light wind, we cooked up some penne pasta with artichokes and spinach. As we were enjoying a whiskey nightcap around the fire after dinner, we heard the coyotes start up. Those erratic yips were chilling and a little too close for comfort. I had a second whiskey for good measure. In the morning my friend told me the coyotes had kept up for a good part of the night, a second pack braying from the hills to the west. The shelter had, surprisingly, held up okay. We had to give it some begrudging admiration until taking it down turned into a wrestling match (okay, we hadn’t really read the directions). Unlike my friend, I had slept soundly and was ready for ghost town exploring. We packed up and headed east. I think the moral of the story here is clear: when coyotes are near, two whiskeys are in order.

Next: ghost towns visited.

Salvation Mountain Walking up the Yellow Brick Road Love is Universal God is Love Leonard Knight with a Flyswatter Cathedral Buttress and Paint Flowers Tree branch lattice Heavenly Door Walls of Adobe Love Is

Since 1985 Leonard Knight has been in a tireless tug of war with the desert to create Salvation Mountain. Using adobe, straw, tree branches, car tires and other gifts spewed up on the vast shores of the desert as well as countless gallons of donated paint from visitors, he created the well known art installation. I had the good fortune to visit Salvation Mountain for the first time in 2008. It’s located in Niland, California off the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. Driving through dusty Imperial County I was ready to be ironically entertained. I expected to see some wild-eyed desert rat rattling off Bible verses in front of a bright and kitschy pile of toxic paint. What I found was a man so beaming with positive energy I would have been won over even if the place hadn’t been, well, moving.

He ran up and greeted our car with a smile and two thumbs up in the glaring midday heat. He insisted on giving us a personal tour, directing us to the yellow brick road, a set of yellow steps carved into the mountain and leading to the top. He took us into a cathedral structure and explained that the support system was composed of car tires and telephone poles. These he covered with paint and adobe flowers, created by punching into a pile of mounded adobe. I particularly liked the car door in the ceiling, taking the mundane to heavenly heights. We sat with Leonard Knight in a tiled shrine, escaping the midday heat while he idly swung a flyswatter. The simple message of Salvation Mountain is God is Love. It’s a hard message to argue with, no matter what your religious persuasion. As he left us to wander around by ourselves and take our fill of pictures, he ran up and greeted the next car in the same way, starting them on the tour. 

I’ve been back two times since then, and each time it was increasingly swarming with visitors. On the last visit in November 2010, Leonard Knight had someone to help him manage the droves of visitors and he had to disappear to rest halfway through our visit. Skip ahead to December 2011: Leonard Knight has been moved to a care facility. No one knows what will happen to Salvation Mountain. One thing I do know is that the desert is relentless. It’s relentless in its heat and sun and stark beauty.  While the message of Salvation Mountain may be eternal, the structure is ephemeral. Check it out before the desert takes it back.

Here’s an article that tells more about the future of Salvation Mountain:

Wagon Wheel neon stagecoach Wagon wheel restaurant Wagon Wheel dance hall Wagon Wheel bowling Waiting around to die Wagon Wheel motif in ivy Winter flowers Motel cabin Wagon wheel Vacancy

I passed by the Wagon Wheel in Ventura County, California for years but didn’t get around to checking it out until February 2011. I was heading north for an off season beach trip, and I couldn’t pass by the neon stagecoach sign another time without stopping. The Wagon Wheel resort was built in 1947, a piece of Americana roadside architecture with a wild west theme. In popular times there were restaurants, a bowling alley, pool, dance hall, and string of cabin-like motel rooms. When I stopped it was raining and cold. The bowling alley and bar were still functioning, and there was a gas fire in the cave-like bar. The motel rooms, restaurant, dance hall, and pool were in serious decay, but had taken on a new kind of beauty. There were wagon wheels rotting in the ivy, orange trees growing through the cabin windows. Bright strands of flowers slummed it across the cracked asphalt.

I was going to write about the beauty of decay. I was going to throw in some philosophical rhetoric about whether or not I would preserve these places if I could. Of course I would, restore them to their former glory even if they were never glorious. The art of nostalgia. Now I have to write about staying one step ahead of the game. The Wagon Wheel was demolished in May 2011 to make way for a housing development with 1500 units. Some people put up a fight to try to preserve it, but in the end it got flattened. I’m glad I hopped the chain link fence in the rain and the cold. I’m glad I took so many pictures. I re-learned the lesson I already knew. That lesson is this: if something speaks to you, explore it. Don’t count on another day in some summery, distant future. 

The world is wider in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.

—Annie Dillard Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Posts I Liked on Tumblr