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DEATH VALLEY, Calif--Those who write about Death Valley often begin with a confession. This is mine: I had always pictured Death Valley as hot and white, glaring to the point of blindness, unable to sustain life. I had convinced myself that there would be no shade, no water -- no hope -- in this joyless place.
I was mistaken, as were all the others who were burdened with prejudice before their first visit.
Of course, the lore that came out of this region did tend to feed grim suspicions. One contingent of Forty-Niners called the valley "Death" because it thwarted them when they attempted to cross it in their haste to join the Gold Rush. Some prospectors looking for a shortcut out of here died in the attempt. Those who survived would remember the valley as hot and white, glaring to the point of blindness, unable to sustain life . . . .
Today, that's the European version. In summer, when temperatures can reach 120 degrees in the shade, 75 percent of the visitors to Death Valley National Park come from across the seas. It seems Germans and the French in particular adore the heat of a Death Valley summer and the lore of the Old West. They want the Death Valley that represents the hardship of yesteryear, just as they want the jeans, boots and Stetsons that go with it.
"Last summer, the place was so full of Germans that we were beginning to wonder what the native language was around here," Fern Burkett remarked one afternoon in early November. Burkett presides over the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch, a sprawling resort built in a green Death Valley oasis.
Furnace Creek, watered by natural springs, cheerfully disabuses those who think Death Valley National Park cannot be anything but bleak. Under a variety of trees, including lush stands of towering date palms, visitors find a little town with motel units, a general store, a saloon, cafes, swimming pool, tennis courts, a golf course, a gas station and the park visitor center. The Borax Museum stands in the middle of it all, its yard filled with old mining equipment and the gigantic borax haulers that were pulled by 20-mule teams back in the 1880s.
Burkett brought up the subject because two men were conversing in German as they browsed the museum/gift shop, and she thought it was unusual to see them in this relatively mild time of year, when daytime temperatures average in the mid-70s and drop to 48 degrees at night.
The men wanted to know more about borax, and Burkett obliged. "It is used in loads of things," she said. "Fertilizer, insecticide, rocket fuel, heat-resistant tiles on the space shuttle, electronics, adhesives, fiberglass, plastic, cosmetics and fire retardant. Through research, they're finding new uses all the time. And it's still being used as a cleanser. It goes into a lot of those detergents that say they have bleach in them."
She raised her eyes to the ceiling and summoned memory. "It's used to coat appliances, the coating on playing cards, in windshields to keep them from shattering, eyeglasses, oven ware. It's used in a lot of things to make them better."
In Death Valley, borax is as inescapable as sunshine. Although most of the mining and processing now takes place elsewhere, Death Valley National Park serves as a gigantic product placement for Borax, the brand name, and 20 Mule Team, the unhyphenated trademark. Back when, the crystalline compound of boron, known as ulexcite or "cottonball," proved to be more consistently profitable in these parts than did the gold and silver mines that were dug and went bust from the mid-19th Century to the early 20th.
Even greater profits probably went to the TV moguls who kept the "Death Valley Days" series going for hundreds of episodes and taught the whole world that borax was hauled out of the valley by 20-mule teams -- a perfect hook for Old West adventure -- and that 20 Mule Team Borax scrubbed clothes whiter than white.
Another use for borax: It makes the human context of Death Valley National Park adhere to our consciousness. Native Americans have come and gone; so have gold miners and other pioneers. They all left traces of their passing, but none so permanent as traces left by the borax people.
Park ranger Dale Housley regularly schedules a lecture he calls "wheelers, pointers and leaders," the names given to sets of animals on those big mule teams that pulled heavy wagons from Death Valley to the railroad in Mojave, Calif., 165 miles south of the mines.
One of the first things Housley tells his audiences is that those teammates weren't necessarily all mules. The wheelers, bringing up the rear and bearing much of the weight, had to be muscular. "Quite commonly, those wheelers were horses, big horses," Housley revealed one morning. Leaders were trained to keep the rest of the team in line. Pointers could be depended upon to pull in the opposite direction from the rest when rounding a curve, and that way preventing the entire enterprise from plunging off a cliff.
"The whole technique was perfected here in the Sierra Mountains," Housley said. "Oh, people have used big teams for a long time, thousands of years. Alexander the Great used to have 40-mule teams he'd haul stuff around with. And in the Midwest, in the 1800s, the big combines were pulled by great big teams of 30 or 40 animals." But the borax mule skinners taught the big teams how to maneuver on narrow, twisting, unpaved roads. "That," said Housley, "was an art."
Most of the big mining operations died out, although a few still operate in the area. The remains of others are scattered around Death Valley National Park and protected as if they were precious archeological digs.
To explain why the park is so borax-friendly, Housley gestures toward a plaque honoring Stephen Tyng Mather, first director of the National Park Service. Most national parks pay some kind of tribute to Mather, who was instrumental in getting the Park Service started. Grand Canyon's Mather Point, for example, is the ledge from which most visitors get their first look at the breathtaking expanse. And Mather turns up all over the park system, his likeness appearing on busts, in portraits or on plaques like the one outside the Death Valley National Park visitor center.
In Death Valley, Mather receives even more special recognition. Stephen and his father opened the New York and Chicago offices of the Pacific Coast Borax Co. in 1889, serving as eastern representatives of that big Death Valley mining operation. Young Mather persuaded the firm's owner, Francis Marion Smith, to adopt "20 Mule Team" as a trademark and advertising slogan. "Mather was a very shrewd guy," Housley observed.
Another shrewd operator was Walter Scott, better known to his friends and victims as "Death Valley Scotty." Scotty worked on a mule team as a teenager, but he spent most of his young manhood touring with the Buffalo Bill Wild West show.
He left show business under mysterious circumstances in 1902 with his bride of two years, Ella Josephine Milius, and zero prospects. Armed with a couple of gold nugget "samples" belonging to his wife, Scotty got several financiers to invest in a non-existent Death Valley gold mine.
When his backers grew impatient for the promised big returns, Scotty made ever more imaginative excuses: floods, earthquakes, mules dying from heat stroke. Chicago insurance magnate and gold mine investor Albert Johnson found Death Valley Scotty highly amusing. Johnson and his wife, Bessie, made frequent visits to the valley and became good friends with the desert con artist. The Johnsons liked their desert visits so much that, in the late '20s, they built an elaborate vacation home in what is now the northernmost part of Death Valley National Park. Scotty lived in the house and told acquaintances that the big Spanish-style mansion and its outbuildings belonged to him, hence the name.
Now Scotty's Castle belongs to the National Park Service. Rangers wearing period costumes conduct tours. Other rangers stroll the grounds dressed in Roaring '20s garb, enriching the atmosphere even further.
So, one could leave Death Valley believing it tells the story of how people out West conquered the elements, extracting minerals and vacation pleasures from a hostile environment.
But they would be missing the natural wonder of it. Death Valley represents the ultimate in basin and range geology: an enormous, flat sink almost entirely surrounded by mountains. Salt deposits and sand cover much of the valley floor. The rock layers that form the mountains -- fully exposed and often a rainbow of oxidized minerals -- tell the history of Earth itself. Most of the cliffs and canyons wear alluvial aprons, where infrequent but torrential rains have deposited rocks and soil.
Erosion works rapidly here, scrubbing gravel into sand, rounding off mountains, shifting soil. Volcanic activity contributed to the uneven terrain, teaming with earthquakes and the intense heat of summer to fashion still more craggy landscape.
The result is another victory for people. They see beauty in the canyons, the salt flats, the dunes and the distant peaks. They cover great distances to witness it all, keeping one eye on the enchanting sights and one on the gas gauge.
In the 1970 film "Zabriskie Point," the brooding young anti-hero surveys the furrowed yellow hills from the Death Valley scenic overlook for which the film is named and declares, "It's dead."
His friend musters all her counterculture wisdom and replies: "OK, it's dead. So let's play a death game. You start at one end of the valley, and I'll start at the other. And we'll see who can kill the most. We'll start on lizards and snakes and move up to mice and rabbits. At the end, we'll count up how many deaths we have, and the winner will get to kill the loser."
Her far-out point, of course, was that Death Valley teems with life, that its name is a lie. If it takes 20 Mule Team hyperbole and an old hippie movie to make people come out here, that's fine. They will be making a wonderful discovery, more valuable than any gold mine a Death Valley Scotty could possibly dream up.