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.


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