Mt. Whitney Towers Over Death Valley

Wow, a vacation! The teenager has gone off to stay with a sib. “Until the rise of American advertising,” paraphrasing Gore Vidal, “it never occurred to anyone anywhere in the world that the teenager was a captive in a hostile world of adults.” Maybe we owe the very existence of modern adolescence to the desperate need to create markets. Adolescence, created as an advertising gimmick? I’m free to turn the dial to something other than the top 40 or MTV stations. I surf for something that will place me in my world, help me integrate my thoughts and feelings and not alienate me further. The shows on the commercial channels, however, appear to validate Vidal’s observation that TV has become “so desperately hungry for material that they’re scraping the top of the barrel.”

The answer to tension at work, freeway jams, John Ashcroft’s threat to further invade my privacy and George Bush’s pledge to start a war, lies in taking a vacation away from it all. Imagine, my wife and I will take three days to just hang out and stare at Nature’s wonders with all the awe they deserve!

A trip to Death Valley, we decide, will afford us views of natural phenomenon and a chance to breathe clean air. As for pollution in LA, as Robert Orben noted, if not “for our lungs there’d be no place else to put it.” On some days I think that even the rocks in my garden will succumb to the contamination.

Drive north on a Friday afternoon, as the radio alert on the “all news station” reminds us, “You’ll find the 15 north clogged with Christmas vacationers en route to Las Vegas and people hot to get to the mall to take advantage of those after Christmas sales.” Angelinos love the ever expanding Vegas, the creation of Bugsy Siegel, an insane Jewish gangster who predicted that millions of people would visit gambling casinos and entertainment palaces in the desert.

“Hey, I get a suite of rooms, free food and drinks, see great shows and sit beside the pool,” an acquaintance tells me. “All I have to do is gamble at the high stakes tables.”

And? I ask.

“I won once,” he said. “So it costs me a few grand every month or two. I can’t resist the idea of getting a free hotel room.”

Another friend says he goes for the shows. “Maybe I drop a few hundred into the slots and on the roulette table. But seeing Wayne Newton at Caesar’s Palace! That’s worth it.”

We turn off the Vegas road, a conscious decision, head north onto California 395 and enter the Mojave Desert, or what should be renamed the “Mojave Desert Housing Development for People who Can’t Afford Homes in Urban Areas.” Billboards advertise three and four bedroom “units” for sale for the low “100s.” “Buy the house of your dreams,” one billboard entices. I remember Bob Kaufman demanding that “the government stop cluttering up our billboards with highways.”

“You want to take a look?” I say suggestively to my wife.

“Forget it,” she says. “Why would you want to live in a spot where temperatures rise over 100 degrees for several months a year and you’re hours away from a bookstore? Besides, we have enough trouble maintaining one unit.”

We pass “Okie Ray’s Museum.” But it’s closed. We laugh. Is this the heritage of the farmers who had to leave the Oklahoma dust bowl and came to California, what Woody Guthrie sang about as the “garden of Eden as long as you got the do re mi.” I wonder if the museum contains photos of the real Okies or just posters of Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

Towns are few and far between in the Mojave as they should be. But developers have somehow gotten access to enough water to build “communities” in this unfriendly terrain and they advertise “dream houses.”

More like a nightmare, I say to my wife. An occasional ranch dots the base of the mountain range, a maintenance shed, a railroad repair installation. The arid landscape extends over the high desert; sagebrush, Joshua trees, infrequent jack rabbits, coyotes, lizards and the hungry crows find lean pickings in winter.

But the ancient craggy structures in Death Valley endure. And we visit Badwater, 282 feet below the level of the ocean’s surface. We walk on the crusted salt floor amidst other tourists from Europe and Asia and a few of our own.

I think about the phenomenon of driving several hours to see the world as the original inhabitants did. “Evolution” has added so many human features after the dinosaurs died. What would a prehistoric man have thought about the very idea of tourism, which includes Bud Light bottles strewn across the vast crater-like landscape as pieces of ugly sculpture? A vicious-looking cactus, less than three feet high, has caught a white plastic shopping bag on one of its powerful thorns. The bag flutters frantically in the wind, as if trying to escape the ancient spines that have pierced its thin poly-ethylene surface. Will the flapping cease before the cactus dies? How many decades or centuries will this contest endure? Should we add the history of plastic bags and flattened Coors cans to the overall history of Death Valley?

Until 1849, history in Death Valley, according to the National Park Service, consisted of the history of pre-historic and now extinct animals, rocks, mountains, flash floods, flora and fauna. Human history–that is white–history began on Christmas Day 1849 when gold seekers (49ers) entered the space occupied by Panamint Indians, Shoshones and Piutes. What happened during the centuries of life that these indigenous people lived in the area presumably doesn’t qualify as official history, even in this allegedly PC era. The road into Death Valley passes The Lone Pine Reservation. Dilapidated trailers, pick-up trucks and metal junk litter the front yards. A few poorly dressed and un-smiling kids stare at the tourists in their cars. The location of the Reservation doesn’t bode well for a gambling emporium–about the same distance from LA as already developed Vegas — to pull these indigenous people out of deep poverty. Nor will the tribes offer their land for a garbage dump, the other money-maker for some tribes. Although you won’t find much about their history in the free pamphlets, the tribes retain a pride that has deep roots in the past.

Their history changed when caravans of lucre-hungry white men thought they had found a short cut to the California gold area. The successive caravans of miners found some silver deposits and other precious metals and with each strike new settlements arose in the valley. But Nature–in the form of extreme heat and dryness in summer–drove the tough pioneers away.

Many miners died seeking silver and even gold. The rocks entice the greedy prospector, with signs that metals galore exist inside them. The yellow flickers, the greens and rusts, signal gold, copper and iron ore. Of course, the rocks did have traces of all these wonderful metals, but the economics of extracting them did not coincide with the supply.

The only enduring mining, extracting boron, from which derives borax (“white gold of the desert”) did make some people rich. But wealth alone did not suffice to tie human settlements to the harsh climate. By the 1880s the Harmony Borax Works began to send 20 mule team borax trains with loads of almost 50,000 pounds on their trek across the desert to the railroad in Mojave some 160 miles away. In 1890 the factory moved northeast to the Calico Mountains, closer to the railroad.

The tourists who visit these and other relics, like Scotty’s Castle, a kind of Jay Gatsby story in the desert, see an orderly and controlled Death Valley. American millionaires loved to build castles (not just William Randolph Hearst) in off-the-road places. Since they couldn’t be real king, they could fabricate their own kingdoms, by buying large tracts of land and finding architects to design royal edifices. Just as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and his real live ilk laid waste to Long Island, so too do modern developers see the desert as something to conquer for their own emotional needs. What does one do with one’s fortune after all? Give a little to charity and try to satisfy fantasies.

Outside Scotty’s Castle, buses with Japanese and German visitors arrive from Vegas and park in designated places, visit gift shops and snack areas; others come in rented cars. They listen to hear National Park Service employees who have obviously taken courses in storytelling entertain them with sanitized tales of the past. Members of the desert club go hunting, mountain climbers test their stamina and heart, nature lovers kvell over the moonscape and like us, eventually head back home, having seen a piece of relatively untouched Nature; nature in its extreme Death Valley form is too hot to touch.

Like Whitney towering above it, Death Valley signals untouchable power. Do tourists come away from it thinking about what a nice day or weekend they spent “out there” before returning to “civilization.” I felt humbled, as if the extant of low desert and badlands, with magnificent Mt. Whitney in the distance, had put me in my proper insignificant place in the vast and powerful organic world.

One day, however, our scientists may figure out how to conquer these remote and forbidding areas, so that we can turn them into more lucrative tourist sites or, better still, factories and office buildings. The materials to make these modern production and residential facilities all originate in Nature, the kind we still see in Death Valley. The Japanese family arrives in their rented car.

The father takes digital pictures of his wife and two teenage kids with the vast landscape as the backdrop. He then records something on his palm pilot and they hop back into their car and drive toward the next tourist attraction. These electronic artifacts, like the ancient rocks, belong to Nature. They just look kind of different. I guess that’s what progress means.

SAUL LANDAU teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest film, IRAQ: VOICES FROM THE STREETS, is available from Cinema Guild 1-800-723-5522. He can be reached at:


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.