Thursday, February 19, 2015

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglide - part 9 - Bennett-Arcane Long Camp

It had been a busy day and a long night, so those of us that remained in Furnace Creek took naps on old cots as mom, dad, and I  rested up for the sunset mule driven wagon tour. Mom was still with the 10 - 2 & 4 Dr. Pepper experiment and after number 2 at 2, she wasn't much for sleeping and made off for the pool to finish Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

At 3 the Bel Air was headed down Badwater Road to the base camp for Covered Wagon Tours where we met with Neil, the outfit's boss, along with guide Jona and muleskinner Craig. As the rest of the passengers arrived Neil told us more about the 20 Mule Teams and wagons in general.

For instance, we didn't know that the steel rim around the wooden wagon wheels was called a tire, and that's where folks got the name for the rubber that meets the road in the present day. The tires on a 20 Mule Team rig were as wide as 7 inches. We also didn't know that the plank or planks of wood a wagon driver (also known as a teamster or muleskinner) was called a dashboard because it helped 'dash' away mud and rocks and such that was kicked up.

Neil went on. Given the times and conditions like hairpin turns and sheer dropoffs, the 20 Mule Teams had a remarkable safety record of no accidents. And that was no accident in that the lead mule up on the left and the muleskinner had a fine tuned relationship in which they communicated with a 100 foot leather jerk line. A steady pull would command a turn to the left and a quick up and down on the line turns to the right. And that lead mule was not your average mule either, he was extra smart and could cost as much as $2500. A handsome sum considering the entire rig cost $900 to build. On tight corners these mules would jump their chains to maintain an angle. It must have been something to see. Neil added that mules are smarter than horses, stronger than horses, don't get sick as much, and survive on a wider variety of food.
By then everyone was there and we were off.  

As we rode the covered wagon and looked out from under the shade of the  canopy I got to thinking that what they needed along the trail was a Burma-Shave jingle or two spaced along the way. Something like the one Dave Frey back at Stovepipe was saying all the time and dedicating to his wife:

The big blue tube
Is like Louise
You get a thrill
From every squeeze
Burma - Shave

We went a little further and to the rhythm of the wagon I began to quietly sing what I could remember from 'Cool Water';
Keep a-movin' Dan
Don't you listen to him Dan
He's a devil not a man
And he sheds the burning sand with water 

Just then Jona, our guide said "Do you know who Dan Is?"

I said I did, it was Dan Hazelwood from school...the kid I kept getting into fistfights with. She said no, a Dan was a mule, or sometimes a horse, of a grey-brown color. Well that pretty much ruined the song for me for I had imaginary designs of leaving my Dan Hazelwood's bones to bleach out in the
desert, for he too had romantic intentions for Susan Gunderson back home.

Jona then asked us to look around the vista and spot living things and ponder what there might be to eat in that vastness. The desert floor seemed to me to be stocked thin as mom's kitchen, though she at least kept a supply of milk and Ovaltine handy.

While muleskinner Craig drove on, Jona said most of the activity in Death Valley occurs at night when it cools down. The kangaroo rat comes out, but he doesn't look for water, he never drinks it. He's adapted special organs in his nose to extract moisture from the air. Old Dan could have used that trick. The roadrunners come out looking for kangaroo rats. Tiny pupfish can swim in briny 115 degree water. The desert holly plant likes the salt too and uses it to turn its leaves silver as the summer sun approaches. The Death Valley tortoise can go a full year without water...if held to Ovaltine and Coke I was pretty sure I could do that as well. The turkey vulture pees on its legs to keep them from which my mom advised me not to consider that when we stopped at the oasis. I was considering it. The black tailed jackrabbit needs to eat several times its body weight every day just to stay hydrated. For regular food though we need to get off the desert floor into higher elevations to find conditions more like the rest of the Mojave and Colorado desert where we'll find mesquite beans, pinion nuts, and acorns and such to make grain and meal. That can be made into a sort of pancake and with some tree sap and quail eggs, you've got breakfast in no time at all.
Jona said we'll learn a little more when we return to camp from the cowboy entertainer.

From the small oasis which was our destination it was a short walk to the next landmark on dad's list. This was where the lost '49ers waited (long camp) and nearly starved for a month while two members; Manly and Rodgers went on and finally got help. Higher ground as we just learned would have served them better. If they'd have stayed with Captain Jefferson Hunt, their original guide, they'd have already been at the goldfields they sought.

Captain Jefferson Hunt

William Lewis Manly 


NO. 444:  Bennett-Arcane Long Camp
Plaque inscription: Near this spot the Bennett-Arcane contingent of the Death Valley '49ers, emigrants from the Middle West seeking a shortcut to California gold fields, were stranded for a month and almost perished from starvation. William Lewis Manley and John Rogers, young members of the party, made a heroic journey on foot to San Fernando and, returning with supplies, led the party to the safety of San Francisquito Rancho near Newhall.

Location: From State Hwy 190 (P.M. 111.8), go approx 16 mi S of intersection of Badwater Rd  (south) and Westside Rd, on Westside Rd, Death Valley National Monument

The sound of a banjo in the distance got closer as we approached the was the western entertainer waiting for us. His name was actually Phillip Boyd Studge but he went by the handle Philboyd. Soon as we got seated at the benches inside the tent to wait for dinner call, he played a sort of guessing game song about a plant to test what we'd learned while on the ride:

I stand out in the desert, I’m a little guy
When fully grown. I’m not 4’ high
I smell really good, after a rain
I’m all around, what’s my name?

Yes I’m all around, that’s another clue
I can clone myself, I’m both old and new
For getting old, I have no peer
And stand around, for 12,000 years

I can clear your head, ease congestion
Heal your wounds, now here’s a question
With all that I can do you see
Do you have a name for me?

Well I stand alone, and I like it that way
Don’t grow too close, or you can’t stay
Need my space, so don’t you push
I’m your friend, I’m the Creosote Bush

I’m a medicine cabinet, some folks say
With a thousand cures. in a thousand ways
Treatments for your afflictions
Cure your cold, ease constriction

Dry skin, consumption, brittle hair
Cramps and pains, I’ll be there
Nausea, poisons, and infections
Rheumatism, poor circulation

Use my branches and make tea
Use my leaves and pieces of me
Just save a little for the next in line
For I’m slow to grow, I take my time

Well I stand alone, and I like it that way
Don’t grow too close, or you can’t stay
Need my space, so don’t you push
I’m your friend, I’m the Creosote Bush

Then there was the song for the Covered Wagon Tours; 'Let The Wagons Roll'

Oh can’t you see the Western sun a settin’
Let the wagons roll for me
It’s an evening that we won’t be soon forgettin’
Let the wagons roll for me

Stars in the sky, ki-yippy-yippy-yi
No finer place to be
Oh can’t you see the Western sun a settin’
Let the wagons roll for me

Out on the trail we’ll see the mysteries of the desert
On a wagon pulled by mule
Back to camp we come for dancin’ and a-singin’
A chuck wagon bar-b-que

Over the pass to the valley floor at last
No finer place to be
Oh can’t you see the Western sun a settin’
Let the wagons roll for me

He then taught us the Barn Dance, which seemed a lot easier and a whole lot more fun than the steps I was learning at Call's Dance Studio back home in Long Beach.  

Then it was time for a western dinner of coleslaw, cowboy beans, tri-tip, chicken, garlic bread.....and pie. We roasted marshmallows and sang 'Happy Trails', the official last song of the wagon tour, a fitting end to our last full day in Death Valley.

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