Weekend Escape: Death Valley : A voyage to the bottom of sea level where the landscape undulates and sights are dubious

Epstein is free-lance writer based in Costa Mesa

Things aren't always what they seem in Death Valley, and they probably never were.

I had last visited Death Valley as a child, and had vague memories of heat, crowds and a castle. I had last heard about Death Valley in a news story last summer reporting temperatures of 128 degrees. My wife, Kathleen, who had never been there, knew only that it's the lowest, hottest spot in the Western Hemisphere.

So we figured hell had frozen over when we pulled over the Panamint Range for a long weekend in late November. The temperature was 32 degrees and dropping, and we could see snow on the surrounding peaks in the light of the full moon.

It was a fantastic introduction to a region often called the land of illusion.

Death Valley gained national park status and added 1 million acres last year, but there are still only three places to book a room inside its boundaries. The most reasonably priced is Stovepipe Wells Village, and we reserved two nights there as a base to explore popular attractions from Scotty's Castle in the north to Badwater in the south. We were also intrigued by quirky stuff just outside the park, notably the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, east from the park, which we'd heard about from friends. We booked a third night at a hotel adjacent to the opera house; that $49.05 and a pair of $8 tickets to a show there provided our most, well, memorable memories.

Our first dinner at Stovepipe Wells proved more serviceable than memorable. At breakfast the next day we appreciated such touches as cowhide-print chairs that swiveled on wagon - wheel bases.

Stovepipe Wells was the first resort in Death Valley (it opened as Bungalette City in 1926); the decor and grounds are dotted with articles recalling the region's prospecting days. Maps of the grounds locate drinking water because only half the rooms--which also are larger, have refrigerators and are $23 more per night--offer drinking water inside. (The bathroom water is not suitable for drinking.)

Death Valley in August might be a unique experience, but we figured in the winter you can actually do things. We stopped in for gas at the General Store, where proprietor Don Stratton assured us that we'd never see snow on the ground in Death Valley.

"Couple years ago, it got down to 16 at night, a storm came through, the snow got right down to eye level," Stratton recalled. "My head got wetted up a little bit, but it disappeared before hitting the ground."

At the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station, elevation 0, the ranger recommended hikes up nearby Mosaic Canyon and, though she warned it's easy to get lost, the sand dunes.

The dunes appeared huge from the ranger station. They got smaller as we drove toward them, and by the time we parked, seemed a manageable patch. Out among them, the expanse seemed huge again. We set out for the highest, farthest dune. It was clear and bright; temperatures were cool, yet our lips cracked with our first joking reference to Larry of Arabia.

Amid the sea of otherwise pristine dunes, we found tiny fox tracks but also one huge, fresh mystery track, which after great deliberation we determined could only be that of a one-foot flying dune bear. Kathleen later insisted there was a second print not far off, which would merely suggest that other elusive species, the two- foot flying dune bear.

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Atop the tallest dune, we wondered if things are never what they seem here. Back on the highway, an hour south of Scotty's Castle, we saw a road sign indicating an hour's wait at the attraction. We decided to visit Ubehebe Crater, about eight miles away. It looked like an outsize quarry but the crater is actually half a mile from rim to rim. It was noon and incredibly windy, and the temperature was in the 40s without the windchill factor. Being buffeted about the rim of Ubehebe gave us the heebie-jeebies, so we lunched on gorp (a trail mix) and focaccia inside the car.

At Scotty's Castle, of course, hardly anything is what it seems. For starters, the castle wasn't Scotty's but that of his millionaire friend Albert Johnson. Not one painting in the home is an original. Architecturally, the home had a chance of being the real thing, but Johnson rejected Frank Lloyd Wright's plans as too costly. There are, however, genuine Tiffany lamps and fabulous dishes and tiles, and we truly enjoyed such photos as one of Scotty with actor John Barrymore in the kitchen holding a side of pork that was titled "Three Hams."

Back at Stovepipe Wells that night, we took a moonlit walk out into the desert. Or at least I thought we were heading out into the desert. Soon we were back at the highway, and there being no cars, we walked back in the middle of it; over our shoulders the road continued unearthly straight past Devils Cornfield and disappeared into the night sky.

By next morning, that sky had clouded over and snow had again dusted the mountains. But there was nothing below eye level, so we bundled up and headed out to Mosaic Canyon. An easy hike brought us to narrows where the marbled rock seemed to have been pulled smooth like saltwater taffy. When we emerged, winds blowing out of the canyons and across the dunes blanketed the valley floor with sand. Had we visited the dunes that morning, we would have been eating them, not climbing them.

We drove south toward the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, where we strolled through the Death Valley Museum. Next door at Furnace Creek Ranch, you can also visit the Borax Museum, play golf and take champagne carriage rides. The coffee shop prices were comparable to Stovepipe Wells, but our sandwiches indicated that the quality was far greater.

Badwater basin appeared to be an immense lake as we drove toward it, an illusion that must have caused pioneers much consternation. Badwater is 280 feet below sea level, and what little water is there is saltier than seawater. Telescope Peak, towering more than 11,000 feet above, was frosted, but the basin below was white with salt, not snow.

Bells pealed at 3:15 as we entered tiny Death Valley Junction. (We later found out that a grandfather clock in the music room next door to the opera house is hooked up to speakers in a bell tower.) "Yipe," said my wife as we pulled up to the hotel. The look on her face said that Las Vegas was only an hour away, but what she actually said was, "It looks . . . sad." I said I would check things out, but convinced that things are rarely what they seem hereabouts, I checked in.

Trompe l'oeil wall paintings by proprietor Marta Becket, including faux archways and other scenes not unlike those of the surrealist Chirico, brought the hotel to life. She also painted the infinitely more elaborate interior of the Amargosa Opera House, covering its walls with murals that alone make a visit worth it. There, Becket is the star of her own show, in every sense. "On With the Show" is a series of quintessentially cornball dance pantomimes based on her life in Death Valley Junction since she arrived there as a ballet dancer from New York in 1968. It was history, hokey and a hoot.

Heading toward home the next morning, we stopped in Shoshone for breakfast. What appeared to be a gas station turned out to be the Shoshone Museum. On the way out of town, we investigated what initially appeared to be a series of caves.

These proved to be the "dugouts" of Dublin Gulch--and they weren't what they seemed, of course.

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Budget for Two

Gas from Costa Mesa: $62.37

Stovepipe Wells, two nights: 165.68

Amargosa Hotel, one night: 49.05

Meals, Stovepipe Wells: 67.46

Groceries and water: 27.29

Admission fees, tickets: 37.00

Other meals: 31.28

FINAL TAB: $440.13

Stovepipe Wells, tel. (619) 786-2387. Amargosa Opera House, tel. (619) 852-4441.

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