Sunday, February 1, 2015

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglide - part 6 - Scotty's Castle

Back on the highway towards our rendezvous at Furnace Creek, dad and mom had decided to take Dave's advice and detour a left down a 40 mile road whose only function was to deliver folks to Scotty's Castle. I thought it had to be the world's longest driveway.

As mentioned in an earlier dispatch, mom had switched to Dr. Pepper after seeing what Coca Cola does to corroded battery terminals the previous day and was adopting the consumption policy laid out on the bottle's label; 10 - 2  & 4. and with a minute left till 10am showing on the dashboard clock of the Bel Air, I reached in the cooler for mom's first bottle. Just as I was handing the Texas based concoction that I felt tasted like carbonated prune juice to her, mom saw something in the road ahead: "SNAKE" she screamed. Without any hesitation whatsoever, dad veered off course and ran directly over the hapless reptile. From the rear window I noted that we were only one of many who had made that maneuver on the rattler. I wondered out loud to dad as to why we veered down on the poor critter like the point of a cowboy boot to a cockroach stuck in a corner, yet he would swerve and skid to avoid squirrel and bunny. "Hmmm" dad said. Meanwhile, mom's Chesterfields and Dr. Pepper were taking hold and in that clarity she recalled nearly every word from an article she'd recently read in the Press-Telegram about a man who'd died from the venom of a rattlesnake fang when he pricked his finger removing the viper's tooth from his tire. "Hmmm" dad said.


Right after the war and fresh out of the Navy, dad skipped around with various jobs before settling down in the family profession of working for oil companies. One such endeavor was building a stage and set in the employ of designer, humorist, actor, and all around character, Harry Oliver out in the Indio desert. With an Arabian Nights theme and his father in Saudi Arabia working for an oil company, it seemed like the right job to take. So when he saw Harry standing there on the grass in the flesh just as we rolled up to the parking lot of Scotty's Castle National Monument, he was elated. What were the odds? Well, less than one might think, for Harry had been there for awhile researching material for forthcoming editions of his 'Desert Rat Scrapbook' quarterly and hanging out with friend, fellow storyteller and national monument superintendent; T.R. Goodwin. While waiting for T.R. to finish conducting a tour, Harry, with his booming theatrical voice and an appearance better suited for radio, decided to give us the nickel tour himself.


Harry asks us if we've noticed the lack of Kleenex bushes blooming along the roadside while in Death Valley. Not the wildflowers that we were too early for anyway, but his term for roadside litter so prevalent in those pre litterbug campaign years. "Hmmm" dad said. Harry also noted he'd slept in Scotty's bed the night before and that the Buffalo Bill painting gave him cowboy dreams.
Walter Edward Scott or 'Death Valley Scotty' had passed a year prior and as we walked the winding path to his grave above the castle, Harry speculated that the place should really be called 'Johnson's Mission Revival' for it was millionaire Albert Johnson's place and his money that built it. So much money that they still didn't know if it was 1.5 million or 2.5 million dollars, but certainly enough to ensure good digging's. And insurance was Johnson's game, National Life it was. Yet, since right out of college, he had the mining speculation bug, and great early success in a lead zinc mine kept the bug alive. Later, he convinced his moneybags dad to accompany him on a rail trip for a look-see at a new mining venture when tragedy struck. Their hottentot Pullman was rear ended by another train and dad was killed, leaving Albert seriously injured and the business. He never fully recovered and was in constant pain the rest of his life. As to Death Valley, he originally came to inspect his investment in Scotty's 'lost' gold mine. Mom perks up and asked if anyone might know anything about her 'Tom Reed Gold Mine' stock in which she inherited 5000 shares since it was around these parts. Harry answered:

"Let those who seek Peg Leg's gold

Cast ten rocks to the pile

To the lost trail of a hundred years

You may add another mile"

Mom took this to mean her stock might be in a fragile state of value for we knew through Harry's Desert Rat Scrapbook publication his obsession with Peg Leg Smith, who could have been Scotty's spirtual mentor in folly and con.


We reach the hilltop and enjoy the incredible vista while Harry continued his story with Albert and other speculators coming out to see the so called mine and call Scotty's bluff that it existed. Meanwhile, Scotty gathered some fellers of low degree along with his brother to stage a raid on the convoy and the 'Battle of Wingate Pass' and its 'rain of lead' went on to make national headlines. Though the only serious casualty was Scotty's brother Warner, it was the stuff of western lore and oxygen to millionaire boredom and the odd fellowship between affluent Albert and Scotty the con began and lasted the rest of their lives.


As it turned out, coming here improved Mr. Johnson's health and though wife Bessie grew to love Death Valley as well, she wasn't much for camping, and the 'castle' was built.


Back off the hill we met T.R. Goodwin and dad asked if the place was a state landmark, since we were looking for them. Mr. Goodwin, a slyly built, prim man in government garb, complete with a flat brim 'Smoky' hat said it wasn't, but it was part of the National Monument. He said that one of the common questions asked by visitors to the area was: "Where is the monument?" And they are greatly surprised to learn that Death Valley National Monument comprised nearly 2,000,000 acres and that was the monument. Not long a go Superintendent Goodwin received the following letter from a representative of a paint manufacturing concern: "Formula X has been tested on several national monuments. It does not change the color of the surface yet it penetrates deeply into the stone preventing the absorption of water, weather, and deterioration." Comments Superintendent Goodwin: "Such a letter tempts one to ask the writer to submit an estimate of the quantity of his product required to protect Death Valley from weathering and deterioration." Yes, T.R. was a great storyteller.


Returning to the parking lot, Harry was reunited with the hat he'd left on the Bel Air's fender. It was 2 o'clock and time for mom's next Dr. Pepper and also time for us to head to Furnace Creek, and with goodbyes said to Harry Oliver and T.R. Goodwin (who both were definitely coming to the Stan Jones shindig) we bid toodles to Scotty's Castle.

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