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.


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