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.