We did eventually find a grocery store in Tonopah, and we purchased a cooler and a bag of ice, and filled it with sausages and potato salad and beer. Tonopah was the first place that I remember the summer heat really starting to hit me. It couldn’t have been hotter than the high eighties, but for a heavy-set woman from Alaska, the high eighties is really about as hot as it gets. I stole a few chunks of ice from the cooler and put them in my water bottle.
One of the great things about Tonopah is the fact that it was the spot where we started heading south in earnest. We picked up 95 South, the same highway that we had initially planned to head north on from Vegas the day before. This was a source of relief to me, as I had worried that in our zeal to escape Las Vegas, and floods be damned, we had put a kink in our itinerary that would never quite work out. But one day behind schedule? My route could absorb that. Things might get a little tight, but we’d still reach the sea.
We drove south through Goldfield, and into Beatty, NV. Once in Beatty, we turned off on to 374, headed west.
We turned off the highway to check out Rhyolite, NV. Rhyolite is a ghost town, and in better days it boasted a population of around five thousand people. After the local gold rush ran dry, the town did too, and by 1920, it was empty. Another museum of faceless memories out in the Nevada desert. Some of the buildings are remarkably well preserved, and the town itself has been used as a filming location. I could see its charm, with the buildings standing as two- and three-storey husks, the same color as the stone that gave the town its name. Stripped of their windows and their wood, the buildings felt as timeless and inscrutable as egyptian temples, rising from the sand.
A portion of the area near the recovered buildings is marked off as an active archeological site. It’s strange to think of archeology being used at a settlement from the nineteen hundreds.
Near Rhyolite, a hand painted sign declaring “Free Museum!” led us to a place called the Goldwell Open Air Museum. One of the most impressive pieces at the Goldwell museum was a series of life-sized human figures that appeared to have been created from draped cloth and plaster. The piece was titled “The Last Supper,” and the figures had been created in such a way that one could sit or stand within the figure, as long as one took the required position.
The figures all seemed to have been cast from the same model, and I wondered if the sculptor had created a poseable frame for the piece, or if he had cast each form from a separate model. Either way the entire sculpture had to have been the work of months, if not years. Their lack of faces and their identical color and material made them both ghostly and inviting, as though the artist wanted the impression of a human form, but no identity at all… so that the human mind could still find meaning in them, and could impose faces and implications on the figures. It was beautiful.
Continuing west and south along the highway, we entered a series of hills that seemed to climb endlessly. My ears ached and then popped, and we began to head downhill. Disappointed, I consulted my map, wondering if we had somehow missed Hell’s Gate and it’s promised vistas. I had been looking forward to Death Valley almost as much as the Salton Sea. I know this may seem silly; Death Valley is largely tame, a national park and a tourist attraction with well-groomed campsites and even a gas station. But the mystique of settlers who had been forced by the barrenness of this place to eat for dinner a soup of bones boiled in ox blood drew my mind like a magnet.
There were easier ways to get into Death Valley, and the entrance near Pahrump was recommended, but the views I’d read about from Hell’s Gate couldn’t be dismissed. In truth, I wanted to see it, but I was more excited to see Phil’s face when he saw it. We came around a bend into a wide parking lot, and used the machine there to pay our entrance fee to the park. It wasn’t until we turned around and looked southeast that we saw the vastness of the valley spread out before us.
The scale, much like that of the Grand Canyon, was impossible for me to grasp, and all I could think was that this was only the middle of the valley; there was more to the northwest, hidden fro view by mountains, and still the bulk of the valley to the south.
The wind blew hot and dry, and even here, hundreds of feet above the valley floor, I can say without any qualms or doubt that the wind in Death Valley has a voice of its own. It doesn’t need leaves to rattle to make itself known; it whispers around rocky peaks, sings in your ears, and groans across a mouth open in surprise and awe. It steals the very breath from your throat.
All gasps in the shadow of such enormous beauty, we rode the highway through Hell’s Gate, and down into the belly of the beast.