Thursday, January 29, 2015

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglide - part 5 - Stovepipe Wells

Old Stovepipe Wells


I awoke in the back seat of the Bel Air to find I was the last one up for mom and dad were already outside the tent cabin having breakfast and talking to Dave Frey the proprietor. I quickly performed my duty of winding the Chevy's clock (30 turns, no more) and made for the outhouse (a fancy two hole-er). Inside the cabin tent was an old windup Victrola and to play on it Dave had brought by a 78 of Vaughn Monroe doing Ghost Riders in the Sky to help get us all in the mood to see that song's author Stan Jones over in Furnace Creek later on. I played it again and again, almost getting two plays out of a windup.


Mom seen cooking while Dave turns about for the photo.


Dad and Dave continued to hit it off well and were in total agreement about how much 'walkin' around money' a man needs. Not the cash in your wallet but front pocket tender to keep at the ready. Then they returned to the subject of the landmarks we were going to and Dave gave us new directions and a short cut to Old Stovepipe Wells nearby, noting that we'd be walking part of the way due to sand. Also, he said we should drop the landmark endeavor for a few hours and go to Scotty's Castle for it was well worth the trip.


All packed up, we gave a wave to good old Dave and said goodbye to the little resort of Stovepipe Wells.     


The stovepipe well. You have to cross the mesquite dunes to get to it and after a spell on the dirt road that came to a washout, and with our recent experience of getting stuck in these same sands, the Bel Air stayed put and we walked. Mom turned back after a few hundred yards, a few more Chesterfields and a paperback at the car were more appealing. We press on with dad recalling most the lyric to the recent Sons of the Pioneers song 'Cool Water'

The words made the desert scorching hot on that cool day as we continued across the faux burning sands with no provisions whatsoever. For me that meant the 1950's standard boys equivalent to civil war hard tack; a PPJ on Wonder Bread and a 6 ounce Coke, stuffed in jeans back pockets.


Over and over dad sang: 'All day I face the barren waste without the taste of water,
Cool water.
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for water,
Cool water.'


By the time we arrived the song had the 60 degree morning feeling more like 120 and my visions of pools of bubbling artesian wells were dashed as we found nothing but a rock and cement base with a pipe sticking out of it. Dad made the best out it and to perk me up told me how that method of marking spots in the desert helped grandfather cross on the old plank road many years prior. With two way traffic on eight foot wide wood planks over sand dunes they'd put up 4x4 lumber real high to mark the turnouts. After figuring out that you could tell time by the pipe's shadow, we returned to find mom engrossed in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, just out in print.

In reality the water at Stovepipe Well was never pleasant, here's one prospector's account:

"My canteens were exhausted when I arrived there [old Stovepipe Wells], and I disregarded the admonition and drank. The water is very low in the spring, is of a yellowish appearance and intensely nauseating in taste. Its odor is very disagreeable, and it can be smelled for half a mile away. Nevertheless, I filled my canteens, and drank of it while there. As I proceeded on my journey my legs became unsteady and I found it difficult to continue my usual pace. I lay down thinking to gain strength, but no improvement was noticeable. The distance between Stove Pipe and Hole-in-the-Rock is about 14 miles, and I fully realized that it was by all odds a case of make this or die . . . . I struggled forward, my legs becoming more and more uncertain…"


NO. 826:  Old Stovepipe Wells   

Plaque inscription: This waterhole, the only one in the sand dune area of Death Valley, was at the junction of the two Indian trails. During the bonanza days of Rhyolite and Skidoo, it was the only known water source on the cross-valley road. When sand obscured the spot, a length of stovepipe was inserted as a marker.

From State Hwy 190 (P.M. 92.1) go N 2.8 mi on (unpaved) Sand Dunes Access Rd, 6.1 mi E of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Monument


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglige - part 4 - Eichbaum Toll Road

Eichbaum Toll Road




It had been a long and eventful day and with having to turn back and check on the iron back home on my suggestion that it may have been left on, we found ourselves in Stovepipe Wells and not in Furnace Creek as setting winter sun turned the hills to brilliant gold. Since Stan Jones' campfire shindig wasn't until the next night, being behind the pace wasn't much of an issue. However, there was the issue of food and lodging for the night, and since it looked like some other folks were hunkering down nearby, we went back across the road to the general store where we met the proprietor Dave Frey who was happy to take care of our needs.

Considering how far the Stovepipe Wells General Store was from any competition, Dave's prices were quite fair. Smokes for mom and dad were still 25 cents, bread was .19, and a half gallon of milk for 45 cents. He even had sirloin at 76 cents a pound but mom decides on hot dogs, figuring we can roast them over the campfire Dave said he has for the guests every night.

Out back were the 'cottages', which were old military GP tents draped over a wood frame. Dave said he got the idea from living and working at Camp Curry in Yosemite and the tents they had there. As coincidence would have it, it turns out in conversation that back in the 1940's, Dave had also owned a small store and cottages right by our current place near Idyllwild. It went bust in '47 largely due poor roads leading there, and this was where dad and Dave really hit it off as neither could understand why people don't carry shovel and boards in their cars at all times.


Dad mentions the landmarks we've gone to and wonders where the next one, the Eichbaum Toll Road, might be. To this Dave said it was a funny thing, we only had to look back across the road and it was right next to the 'Burned Wagons' landmark about 100 feet to the right. Another funny thing about it said Dave was that the landmarks was all about this store's predecessor, old Bob Eichbaum and his toll road that opened up Death Valley to tourism back in 1926 and enjoy stay with Bob and his wife Helene at what they called 'Bungalette City' 


Old Bob got 'em with a toll going both ways, with a renaming to 'Mt. Whitney Toll Road on the other side of the overhead sign. The tolls stopped when the state took the road over in the 1930's.


At the campfire that night were Dave and his wife Louise, a half dozen French tourists who spoke no English, and us. With mom and dad's pianos at home (they each had their own) and fortunately my accordion as well, we had no instruments, so dad decides a little acapella sing along is in order and he launched into some Lefty Frizzell favorites with 'Long Black Veil' and 'Always Late'. To this the confused  French countered with Edith Piaf's 'La Vie en Rose' and the latest Gallic pop hit, the melody to a song we'd later know as 'Let It Be Me' from the Everly Brothers. A good time was had by all, and with the news that the Stan Jones event was just a day away, everyone was excited about heading to Furnace Creek for the event.

With a new block of ice in the cooler, we settle in, or rather mom and dad settle in the tent and it's decided that I'd be better off sleeping in the Bel Air.

Laying there in the back seat that night turned out to be feast for the senses, stoked like Dave's poker had just done livening up the campfire embers to flame. It was totally different than laying down in the back seat of a moving car. First, I found a little switch hidden halfway down on the herringbone cloth below the armrest behind the driver's door. It turned on the dome lights. Who knew? Couldn't wait to tell dad in the morning. Then there were the chrome strips crossing the headliner and emulating supports for a convertible top. Since I knew all GM hardtops had them, I wondered if Cadillac had more of the chrome strips. On average back then, the guy at the top of a company made about seven times as much as the guy at the bottom, and with Chevy, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Callilac, General Motors had a car for every step along the way.  Called hardtop convertibles then I was to learn later that the cars were actually convertible bodies and not sedans and that they'd simply weld the tops on after making the rest of the car.


Then there was the clock. The windup ticker sat up in the middle of the dashboard and in the quiet desert night, was really loud. I'd heard the Cadillac clock was now electric and thought how nice that would be, as it was becoming a bit like Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Tell Tale Heart' I'd just read. Then the action scenes from 'It Came From Beneath The Sea' where a '51 Chevy is chased across a bridge by a hideous giant squid play over and over in my head. The car didn't make it. And I'm in a '51 Chevy. Eventually, soothing thoughts began like Dave's mentioning earlier that the term 'dashboard' came from the wagon days and was the plank a driver would rest his feet on and used to 'dash' away the mud and dirt and such tossed up from the road and I fell asleep to a gentle breeze and yips of coyotes in the distance.



Plaque inscription:

NO. 848  Eichbaum Toll Road

In 1926, H. W. Eichbaum obtained a franchise for a toll road from Darwin Falls to Stovepipe Wells, the first maintained road into Death Valley from the west. It changed the area's economic base from mining to tourism and brought about the creation of Death Valley National Monument seven years later.

Location: 100 ft S of State Hwy 190 (P.M. 85.83), Stovepipe Wells , Death Valley National Monument


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglide - part 3 'Burned Wagons Point'

Burned Wagons Point


We were back in the Bel Air and headed north on the Trona - Wildrose Road about 65 miles to reach the Death Valley Road cutoff, with its sweeping turns and panoramic desert vistas in every direction and a growing realization that the hum of the Chevy six and the banter of the people within it were the only signs of life on this day as far as the eye could see.


"On curves ahead
Remember, sonny
That rabbit's foot
Didn't save
The bunny


"The place to pass
On curves
You know
Is only at
A beauty show


That was all the roadside poetry I could recall to recite at the time, the tank was dry. Mom however picked up the slack and  was quite chatty after two Cokes and some Chesterfields and going on and on in her terminology about 'this, that, and the other thing', to which my dad in his quest to always minimize vocabulary would say 'hmmm' if he didn't know the answer, or what she was talking about, or 'uh-huh' when he did. This went on for 45 miles or so as we came down to and crossed the desert floor and then the road went away.


Apparently a rainstorm had washed away our little byway at the low point for five miles or so and repair wasn't much of local priority. It would have been nice if someone had mentioned this back in Trona. The dirt washboard surface was passable but slow and bouncy when 'short cut' dad decides the smooth dirt to the side was the way to go, and of course we got stuck in the sand.


Not to worry, because as mentioned in earlier dispatches, we were short cut trained and had boards and shovel in the trunk. With several years experience installing snow chains on trips to the mountains of Idyllwild, California and with a flip of the hidden lever underneath, I had the fender skirt off in a flash, boards under the wheel,  and the slushy Powerglide automatic had the car out of sand in no time and we were on our way again. This time staying to the center.


We finally met the road to Death Valley and went up, down, and around, though mostly up, till at the high point just before descending to the valley floor, the Cokes caught up with me, I couldn't take it any longer and had to pee. Afterwards, dad went to start the car but nothing happened, so since it was downhill all the way to Stovepipe Wells from this point, dad figured we'd simply roll there in neutral. It was a bit like Woody Guthrie's 'Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues':


'Way up yonder on a mountain curve

This was way up yonder in the piney woods

I gave the rollin' Ford a shove

I's a gonna coast, fer as I could

Commenced to coastin'

Pickin' up speed

There's a hairpin turn

I..............didn't make it.'


Well actually we did make it and rolled right to the service station at the Stovepipe Wells General Store where the mechanic looked under the hood, and then took the Coke from my hand and poured the contents over the corroded battery terminals and the Bel Air's battery was good as new as she started right up. This was the day mom stopped drinking Coke and switched to Dr. Pepper.


Right across the street was Burned Wagons Point and the next landmark on dad's list. Another monument dealing with the lost '49's, this time being the spot where they burned their wagons and continued on foot, taking the same path we had just rolled in on and the famous slogan 'Goodbye Death Valley' was spoken, quite possibly at the very hilltop spot I'd just made water.     



No 441 Burned Wagons Point

Plaque inscription:

Near this monument, the Jayhawker group of Death Valley Forty-Niners, gold seekers from Middle West, who entered Death Valley in 1849 seeking short route to the mines of central California, burned their wagons, dried the meat of some oxen and, with surviving animals, struggled westward on foot.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglide - part 2

Valley Wells


The 'Trophy Blue' and 'Moonlight Cream' topped 1951 Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop was a smooth ride. As the old Fred Hutchinson song states: "The Chevrolet six just can't be beat." The three speed column shifters got 90 horsepower and the Powerglide automatics, 105 horses. That infamous 2-speed transmission herded many of those horses to corrals unknown before reaching the wheels, so the extra power was necessary. Power being a relative thing. The 'stovebolt six' as they called it had been around since the '30's and a Ford V-8 could make mince meat out of a Chevy and whiz by on the old suicide passing lanes. When that happened dad would recite:

"A guy Who drives
A car wide open
Is not thinkin'
He's just hopin'

The only hope was to pass an occasional Plymouth, which took a fair amount of exposure in the two-way middle lane as the 'Thriftmaster' single barrel carburetor would gasp for more air and fuel. Ah but who cared, the Bel Air hardtop had Cadillac class and Harley Earl style. And pillarless 4 X 60 air conditioning; four windows down and sixty miles an hour. Besides the Powerglide, the other factory options were a radio and a heater. We had it all. Plus a backup light from the dealer.  


Dad aims the Chevy back through town to the library where Stacy the librarian gathers some information for my dad's newly perked interest in landmarks, figuring it was likely there'd more along our way. And if there might be a short cut besides the known road north. Stacy said there wasn't but it was funny he should ask about a short cut for there was a landmark dealing with that very issue of short cuts just five miles ahead. In fact it was those very people the landmark talks about, the 'Lost 49'ers' that named Death Valley. Exciting news for some but at the time I couldn't care less. I wanted a Coke. Mom agreed and we stop by the market and pick up a six ounce six pack for thirty seven cents and drop it in the metal Colman cooler. Dad had taken a mental snapshot of the landmark locations ahead and we were off,  for as always, he felt a man does not ask directions and does not need a map. What he needs as stated in the previous dispatch, is a good short cut.


As Stacy the librarian had noted, we were at our next landmark, 'Valley Wells' in no time at all. The short story is that in Utah a big piece of a wagon train outfit became upset with the slow but safe pace and track the guide had chosen and broke off, and with a new guide who was said to have a map of John Fremont's, made off for a short cut. This group had yet another tiff and it broke in two as well with the adventurous ones heading across what is now Death Valley in the winter of 1849. Nice weather but food and water were hard to come by. As they left, one person wrote down: "As I look back at Death Valley" ....and the name stuck.


They were getting pretty desperate and the Sierras were looking formidable from where they stood, so when they spied what we now call Searles Lake to the south they were elated, only to find it salty and undrinkable. Too bad, for had they stayed put they'd have been far wealthier than throwing in the placer mining crowd. Potash just doesn't have the attraction of gold. The real gold in California then was in making a good wheelbarrow like John Studebaker, or borax like John Searles, Our lost wagon train pressed on however and was eventually rescued down around Newhall. 



NO. 443 VALLEY WELLS - In this area, several groups of midwestern emigrants who had escaped from hazards and privations in Death Valley in 1849 sought to secure water from Searles Lake. They turned northward and westward in despair when they discovered its salty nature, and with great difficulty crossed the Argus and other mountains to reach settlements of Central and Southern California.
Location: Trona Wildrose Rd at Valley Wells Rd, 5.5 mi NE of Trona


Two landmarks down and the Bel Air continues north to complete our short cut and meet the main road into Death Valley and the Stan Jones shindig at Furnace Creek.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglide

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglide - part 1


Back in 1955 the Elks Hall in Long Beach, California was the kind of place where working class folk from the aircraft assembly plants and oil refineries could gather, mix, dance it up, and take the wide-eyed kids along. And what a night it was when Stan Jones came down from Los Angeles and brought Eddie Dean's boys, 'The Plainsmen' to accompany his western songs, with 'Ghost Riders In The Sky' being the most famous. By then, it seemed like most everyone had recorded it.


While on a break, Stan and dad got to sharing a little hooch in the parking lot from the trunk of the Bel Air and Stan gets to the story of how he was discovered. Of his many occupations, one was as a park ranger in the Death Valley National Monument and the task to act as a consultant to a John Sturges movie on location there fell in his lap. Around a campfire one night, Stan got to playing his songs about the west and the movie boys said: "You've got to take that 'Ghost Riders' song down to Los Angeles." Well, he followed that advice and before long, Stan was off to another career as a songwriter, actor, and performer. With his break over and back on stage and newly inspired he announced: "Me and the boys have talked it over and we're going to stage a big campout in Death Valley at Furnace Creek, it'll be just like in the movies and we're hoping you all can come along." Well, that was all dad needed to hear and the adventure to the enchanted desert had begun.


The first leg of any journey in our small family was always hampered by the same complication, and it was my fault actually. I just couldn't help it. As the blue '51 Bel Air would glide well into its first hour of travel I'd stand from the back and lean over the front bench seat and mention in my 'shy' voice a ruse from the arsenal; "Hey mom, did you leave the iron on?"  Once planted, the statement would brew in my dad's mind, sort of like making a pot of coffee and when done we'd be headed back home for another inspection of the homestead's potential catastrophes. All because the original walk through had mom and I waiting in the driveway for twenty minutes while hatches were battened down. I couldn't let it go. And that went on for years.

Under way again, and this time with the 'saturate before using' Desert Brand burlap water bag hanging from the front bumper, we headed north to our first goal and one of several paths to Death Valley, Trona. We headed that way for three reasons; The Pinnacles, Julio & Bufungo, and the third I've forgotten. Wait, I remember now, dad considered it a short cut.

And that short cut part started out well with the seldom used Trona Road bypassing Ridgecrest and heading straight for a town named after a mineral, and the annual tourists making this a destination can be counted on one Why?

Reason #1; Julio & Bufungo were former cowboys (their cowboy one knew their real ones) that Stan Jones said he hung and rattled with back in his rodeo days that were now working for Kerr-Magee in Trona. Dad felt it important to rustle up these boys for the shindig in Furnace Creek. Reason #2; short always took them. The more unsubstantiated, the better. We'd learned the hard way to always travel with boards, shovel, ponchos, water, gas, Shell X-100 motor oil, fan belts, and ropes & chains. 


For reason #3, we first ran by the Pinnacles, the lunar landscape and green screen for many a space film venture....and perhaps later, a Neil Armstrong footprint or two. Dad took a photo or two of the area on the Argus. We walked around a bit, I had counted three scorpions under lifted rocks when mom yelled "SNAKE" and we side stepped past the knurled twig wedged in a pinnacle crevasse. Though it was a false alarm, there were plenty of rattlers on this high desert floor for sure, and sure enough, as we made it back to the car, one was curled up on the ground and warming itself on the ground directly under the Chevy's motor, and we drove on. I thought about telling mom the viper may have crawled up in the engine to get dad's mind percolating again but we'd lost enough time already...we needed lunch.


As we came around a bend, the experience of seeing Trona in the split windshield panorama to the left and Searles Lake to the right for the first time was below our modest expectations, and the antithesis of viewing my favorite spot of June Lake from the bend at Oh! Ridge further up highway 395.

When a man got a good paying job here at this Kerr-Magee (now Searles Valley Minerals) company town and brought the family, the wife would cry. You were paid in script. The school football field as well as the golf course were dirt. Grass does not grow here. What is found is trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate or Trona for short, or 'rotten eggs' smell for real. You get sodium carbonate and potash from the stuff and it's America's only reliable source. No gunpowder without it, or Alka-Seltzer for that matter. If you were going to Trona however, it was a good day, for it was cool, in the high 40's, and that scrambled the rotten egg smell.

The locals happily used terms like:
'Use a gun, go to Trona'
'Siberia of the desert'
'Eau de Trona'
Why they were self deprecating yet cheerful we found out shortly. Still, when we saw the abandoned cars that had rusted clean in two, one had doubts about the place.  

Dad had called ahead and we were to meet up with Julio & Bufungo at Cowboy Bob's restaurant on their lunch break. We ordered, but for some reason I couldn't find an egg salad sandwich on the menu. The boys showed up and Lucky Strikes and conversation were exchanged and we learned a thing or two from them. It turned out the people were cheerful there because more wealth had been taken from Searles Lake than all the gold in California since the Gold Rush of 1849 began. There's money to be made. Teachers were the highest paid in the state and pay at the plant was the best for that field of work. In that dried and dusty lake bed are 98 of the104 known chemical elements...including the one that eats cars. Just when I was thinking these were some pretty smart fellas, Bufungo mimics mom's earlier comment and yelled "SNAKE"....and everyone scurried about for a bit. Julio said he did that for effect once every few hours.


They thought seeing old Stan in Death Valley was a great idea and with pleasantries exchanged they said that before we go we should check out the landmark down the street for more information about this town without which there would be no Boraxo. We sauntered down Trona Road a tad to Church Street, where there was no church, just the potash plant with smokestacks chuggin' on the other side of the road, and came to a little turnout where the state landmark resided. An official looking bronze plaque stated the following:


NO. 774 SEARLES LAKE BORAX DISCOVERY - John Searles discovered borax on the nearby surface of Searles Lake in 1862. With his brother Dennis, he formed the San Bernardino Borax Mining Company in 1873 and operated it until 1897. The chemicals in Searles Lake-borax, potash, soda ash, salt cake, and lithium-were deposited here by the runoff waters from melting ice-age glaciers, John Searles' discovery has proved to be the world's richest chemical storehouse, containing half the natural elements known to man.
No one said much to amplify this serendipitous event, probably because no one knew what that word meant then. Especially dad, who liked to keep vocabulary to a grab bag of 500 words or so. Still, his interest was perked with this landmark thing and he wondered if there were others along our journey, and that sparked a trip to the Trona library we had passed along the way, to be the gateway to our next Landmark Adventure.