That’s just Brando blowing through


IT’S DARK AND I’M ANKLE-DEEP IN DESERT SAND, THINKING about Stanley Kowalski and Mr. Peepers. There’s no sound, no wind, and I can’t really see where to step. But these dunes are so soft, falling is nothing. Two miles into the field, I climb a tall mound, flop on my back and drift away, just for a minute or two, while shooting stars flare and dwindle.

Then I wake up someplace else. There’s a breeze -- 70 degrees at 6 a.m. -- and a brightening sky that throws just enough light to sketch in the dunes that stretch in every direction. So long as a sidewinder doesn’t slither up your pants, this has to be one of the world’s top venues for a nap.

Or a longer slumber.

After Marlon Brando died at 80 on July 1, his family had him cremated. They left some of his ashes on his island in the South Pacific. The rest, my colleague Robert Welkos reported recently, they scattered at an undisclosed spot in Death Valley, along with ashes of his longtime friend Wally Cox. It develops that Cox, best known for his television roles on “Hollywood Squares,” “Mr. Peepers” and “Underdog” (he was the voice), visited the desert often with Brando before dying of a heart attack at 48 in 1973. Brando had held onto his ashes for more than three decades.


Death Valley is one among scores of national parks that allow families to scatter ashes of their loved ones. Policies vary from park to park, but already this year, rangers here say they’ve issued four ash-scattering permits -- none of them bearing the names Brando or Cox.

“We had absolutely no idea until we read the paper.... No one at the park had been contacted,” says a park spokesman.

But this was not a profound surprise. As rangers throughout the West concede, countless families every year sidestep paperwork and quietly slip onto public land to make a mortal deposit and bid a last farewell.

And if it’s happening a lot now, just wait. Thirty years ago, one American in 16 was cremated. These days, the Cremation Assn. of North America reports, the number is roughly one in four. In California last year, cremations outnumbered burials for the first time.

At Yosemite, rangers have OK’d 16 ash-scatterings this year (no charge, families urged to avoid trails and water sources). Up at Redwood National Park, the average is two a year, usually locals. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, rangers issue three or four permits yearly.

“Most folks just want to scatter them along the crater rim,” says that park’s management assistant, Aleta Knight. “We request a copy of the death certificate, so we can make sure this is an appropriate thing to do.”

Throwing ashes, or any remains, into the volcano or lava itself is forbidden, in deference to the sacred role played by Pele, goddess of fire and resident of Kilauea Caldera, in Native Hawaiian culture.

“The lava is her blood, and it is disrespectful to impact it in any way,” says Knight.

But we were talking about dead celebrities.

There are five dune fields in Death Valley, but the one near Stovepipe Wells is the largest. This is where the valley’s crisscrossing winds gather up billions of grains daily and drive them into drifts 120 feet high.

Most of those grains are probably pulverized quartz and feldspar from the surrounding mountains, but who knows? If we had the means to sort it all out, we could probably find bits of Baghdad here -- Baghdad 2004, Baghdad 1004, Baghdad 4. There’s no telling what else -- or who else. But if you trudge out a few miles and sit still awhile, I promise, ideas will begin to multiply.

First I tried trudging and sitting at sunset, with the eastern mountains blazing in the late light. Two dozen visitors like me crawled across the dunes like ants on a hill. We cradled our cameras against the breeze, knelt to inspect the minuscule animal tracks, wondered how long our footprints would last. But too many cars zoomed past on Highway 190, and too many human figures popped up when I scanned the sands around me. Too much sharing.

So I left and crept back 11 hours later, in the dark, still silence just before dawn.

About dunes: The leeward side is called the slip face, and slip faces are usually steeper than the windward sides. The steepest dunes are about 34 degrees. That’s what geologists call “the angle of repose” -- one of those magical phrases that hints at something more than elementary science. No wonder Wallace Stegner, looking to title his big novel about westward expansion, grabbed it up.

When a dune gets steeper than 34 degrees, the sand tumbles down and settles into a new equilibrium. Every pile of loose particles has its own angle of repose, depending on what it’s made of.

That’s just the beginning of the vocabulary in the grains out here. A transverse dune lies in the fairly straight line, the result of wind blowing to and fro. A star dune, usually produced by shifting winds, has three or more arms. The tallest dunes at Stovepipe Wells are the star dunes.

Now maybe you’re thinking that bits of Brando and Cox must surely repose within one of the star dunes. Maybe even in the tallest star dune, where I sat looking down as dawn broke, and a million shadows, long and short, leaped and looped across the creamy sand and threw every fresh footprint into bold relief.

I can neither confirm nor deny there’s anything more than homegrown quartz and feldspar and a few sidewinders out here. But I do think the Brando family made a great call. As I sat up here on my star dune in the middle of that vast light show, I imagined for a moment I heard the wind call “Stella!”

To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or to read his previous Wild West columns, go to