Beatty Clan Spring Desert Trip, Part One: Bishop to Death Valley

Every time we go, there's more to explore, more longing in my heart, a thousand things I wish we could have done. I come home with my purse full of sand and ten loads of laundry, dusty sleeping bags to shake out and pans to wash, but a heart so full and replenished it spills over again and again, like an El Nino floodway. 

Our Beatty family trip (so many past trip posts here, there, and everywhere) came early this year, planned as a Spring Break ramble through the Eastern California desertlands. We followed tracks that Darin and I have mostly made before, because I always go anywhere I go with the hopes that my whole family will someday find the same beauty that I find there.

I started planning this trip last fall, knowing that the spring is a popular time to visit the desert, and the campgrounds might fill up quickly. As soon as reservations opened in both Death Valley and Anza Borrego, I reserved us sites. It takes at least three campsites to accommodate our group, or one group site (our favorite). I got caught behind with our Joshua Tree plans because at first we were going to stay in some rustic, beautiful earth pods, but it turned out our group was too large so we squeezed in last minute camping reservations at Black Rock Canyon. All this was before the words "superbloom" ever hit the media, and before I got a job! Luckily, everything worked out just fine. Since the trip was already planned for Spring Break, I wouldn't have to miss any classes. And the crowds that I dreaded with all the media attention on the Superbloom didn't seriously materialize. These places are too remote, too vast, to be seriously impacted by traffic or visitors. There was room for all, more than enough. Space and stars and sky forever.

We left on a bright cool Saturday morning with our new-to-us minivan (the girls call her Evelyn, or "Ever" for short) loaded to the gills and my mind racing with any possible thing I might have forgotten. Three new mix CDs rotating on the stereo along with tons of our old classics. The drive up into the Sierras and over was blissful, despite my worries about recent snows. We had not a care in the world, snacking and singing, tra la la. Arrived in Bridgeport around noon to find that our favorite spot, Jolly Cone, was still closed for the season ("See you next summer!" the sign read). But around the corner by the courthouse we found the most delightful park for the girls to run around while we waited for the first envoy of family to join up!

You all know how I feel about parks with old, metal playground equipment. Downright JOLLY, and I think my girls agree. 

You'll just have to imagine the glee on our faces to see the first group of cuties pull up to this charming little park in the middle of nowhere and start tumbling out to join us. 

Bridgeport is the prettiest little town right there on the backside of the Sierra Nevada, with those snowy mountains constantly keeping watch.

a little skateboarding lesson with Jojo.

We decided to skip Travertine Hot Springs in order to have time to get to Bodie, the little ghost town several miles out a bumpy dirt road. When we got to the turn off for Bodie, to our dismay, we found that the road was closed. So our caravan moved on. We had plenty of time to explore one of our favorite otherwordly places, Mono Lake.

Mono Lake is a dramatic story of the misuse of water in the west. From 1941 to the 1970s, the city of Los Angeles diverted water from the streams of Owens Valley, thus drastically diminishing Mono Lake, which is a vital ecosystem upon which millions of life forms depend. As Marc Reisner writes in Cadillac Desert, "Los Angeles employed chicanery, subterfuge, spies, bribery, a campaign of divide-and-conquer, and a strategy of lies to get the water it needed. In the end, it milked the valley bone-dry, impoverishing it, while the water made a number of prominent Los Angeleans very, very rich."  
It's a fascinating story, and one that is now on its way to being a restoration success story: since the 90s, the lake levels have risen and much biodiversity has been restored. It will take at least fifty years to restore the lake to a healthy management level that fully supports the ecosystem.

Papa poses with the tufa towers, which are each between 200 to 900 years old!

Changing diapers in the open air.

Polly adopted a beautiful bumpy white rock that she carried around calling her baby. She wanted it tied to her chest with my scarf as an "Ergo" and she carried it all the way back that way. Bella heartily supported this endeavor, being the sweetest, best baby-loving cousin in the world. 

Everything Orion does is fascinating to the girls, maybe too much so. Tootie impulsively knocked over an elaborate stone tower he was building, which made him cry seeing as how "when people ruin my art" is the one thing that bothers him most. He is such a dynamic little guy and he played with the little girls so merrily on this whole trip. They've hit a wonderful new stride in their relationship.

I fell in love with this mural outside the Mono Lake Committee Information Center in Lee Vining, CA. (The only place open off season!) Inside they have a wonderfully curated selection of natural history books and beautiful native-made jewelry and souvenirs.

It was dark as we pulled into Bishop where we had reserved rooms at a cheap motel for the first night. The town was bustling with fishermen and spring breakers and locals, some of whom later partied loudly in the streets until at least 3 a.m, to be heard loud and clear from every paper-thin-walled motel room. Anyway, for dinner our large group found refuge at the local Pizza Factory where we could get super greasy fingers, drink cheap pitchers of beer, and run wild in the arcade to our heart's content.

Next morning had a lovely stop at the Great Basin Bakery for homebaked bread, delicious organic coffee, and gluten free treats, highly recommended by my Mom and Jack, before heading down Highway 395.

It's a drive full of wonders. We stopped in Independence to check out Mary Austin's house, nestled on a cozy road among cottonwoods, in the shadow of those grand mountain peaks.  It's no wonder to me that she was inspired to write her classic, A Land of Little Rain, here.

Just down the road is the haunting site of Manzanar, a so-called "Relocation Center" during WWII for over 10,000 Japanese citizens. I have been here before, but not since becoming a mother. I think that has made my heart closer to breaking at any given moment, for this visit to the memorial was almost unbearable for me, especially as I tried to explain the basic facts to my questioning little daughters. How could I say, while looking at large photographs of families putting on brave faces: "These families were forced to move here, to this remote place far from everything they knew, to live in these flimsy barracks with no insulation in this dramatic climate. The majority of them were under the age of 18. Children. Just like you. They lived behind barbed wire with limited resources and they had guns pointed at them from watchtowers and they were not allowed to leave."  This time I could feel so clearly what it would be like to take up your children and a few meager belongings and leave home, your business, all the roots you have put down. It is nearly unfathomable. When I took Tootie to the womens' restroom, I saw a sign about the lack of privacy for the ladies using the camp bathrooms during the relocation. They had a hard time using the facilities right next to each other and many got sick. This was one of many facts that struck me with the force of a brick, the inhumanity of it, right here in America, the land of the free. 

We drove the dusty mile around the circumference of the site and parked on the side of the road to wander a bit. We found joy in the reonvated site of the "Pleasure Park," originally created and built by detainees in 1943, and eventually covered by sand. It was not excavated until 2008, and consequently rebuilt and restored with the help of some of the original Japanese detainees from Manzanar. In the middle of a stark, mostly barren place, you could just feel the sense of relief and peace this little garden brought.

Tootie loved "Turtle Rock" in the middle of the old pond, and the kids all loved running across the rustic bridges. I like to think that the laughter and acknowledgement of children helps to heal a place. 

After that emotional experience, we stopped in the town of Lone Pine to stock up on a few groceries at the dusty supermarket. A mile or so out of Lone Pine is the lonely old highway that takes you past the turnoffs to old mining ghost towns, and down into the depths of our earth: Death Valley.

The drop down into Panamint Valley is breathtaking, winding and steep. Both our girls were asleep in the van as we drove and Darin and I were nervous about the brakes, as this was our first time driving Evelyn on a longer road trip. It felt like after some use, the brakes would get shaky and didn't want to work as well, and it was making us really nervous. It was a harrowing descent, but exhilarating. We stopped at Father Crowley point to take in the view of the valley that we'd soon be entering.

Our campground was at Furnace Creek and I had researched a bit to get us shady sites, numbers 100, 101, and 102. I highly recommend these sites and this campground if you are ever camping at the hottest place in America. As soon as we arrived, it was dusk, shady, warm, and inviting, and Joey and Em and Scout greeted us with smiles and cold beers to calm the jangled driving nerves. Lucy was enamored with the low branch of the tamarisk tree in Joey and Em's site and has not stopped talking about it, disappointed that we only spent one night here. It may well be her favorite camping spot yet. 

In the dry wash of the creek behind our site, the girls found an "enchanted forest" to play in.

How literary boys camp. Representing: Clark Ashton Smith, Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, and Shakespeare. Oh yeah, and beer of course.

It might seem incongruous, being Death Valley and all, but this was an incredibly soothing place to be in March of 2016. For desert lovers, I can guess it would always feel this way. In a land of sand and wind and dust, where animals and plants adapt to live and thrive, rocks move magically by themselves, and geography towers luminously, there is a mystery and a secret moving about in the land that is essential to the health of the human soul. There is a knowing that goes deeper than ordinary knowing. I think people intuitively connect to that in Death Valley, and it leaves us feeling more spacious inside, and somehow more whole. 


By moonlight we headed to the mesquite dunes for an Equinox romp. We had wine, glow sticks, bare feet and long exposures. Our glow sticks made streaks in the paling sky, and we tumbled and leapt down the hills of the moon.

I've said it so many times before: camping mornings are the best. Just the absolute best.

After stops at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and the general store, we headed out to see the sights. We drove the Artist Palette loop slowly and stopped to clamber the hills a bit. Pops' hat blew off the side of a cliff, and of course Matt sprang into action and speed-slid down the side to retrieve it. Ever the hero!

If you're going to drive this way, make sure to bring dreamy music. We listened to Brokeback and it was perfect.

Next stop: Zabriskie Point. One of the most famous places in Death Valley, it was the perfect backdrop to meet up with Addie, Art, and Utah, wandering along in their motorhome Loretta, by way of Beatty, Nevada (fittingly). 

The place grabs your heart from your chest. No wonder all the kids can do is break all the rules and run to every edge and almost over.

Heading south, we decided to check out Dante's View, which took us up a mountain to another extreme from the sunken and hot valley floor. Along the way we encountered scores of wildflowers brightening the hillsides and roadsides: desert marigold, desert chicory, wild heliotrope, Panamint daisy, primrose and paintbrush.

At the top, the wind nearly blew us away! It was a shocking twenty degrees cooler or more, up there about 5000 feet higher than where we'd been.We put on sweaters and held those little hands tight, then gazed out at the panorama that encompasses Badwater Basin, the Owlshead Mountains, and Telescope Peak. 

Getting snuggly, both my girls love their "bah" which means "arm." Haha! It sounds so weird when I write it out like that, but it is just a daily part of our life. "Bah" or "Bahbie" (pronounced bobby) is very comforting to them and can be found just rubbing their hand along someone's arm, preferably the soft part of the back of your upper arm, usually the arms of a trusted loved one. Toot is especially fond of a "cold bahbie" on a warm night. It is requested like this: "I need your bah." 

Leaving Death Valley, we were stopped at a junction in the tiny little wayside town of Amargosa and we waited for road work. We were right alongside this old fashioned stucco hotel, which I have since researched. Although the cafe looked closed, the hotel seems to be very much in operation, as well as the adjoining "Amargosa Opera House," still run by its beloved owner, Marta Becket, who performed dance here nightly for years and years. I am very much looking forward to a return visit!

The road down to Joshua Tree looks fairly short and simple on the map, but it's long! It goes right through the Mojave Preserve and it is absolutely beautiful. We kept our eyes peeled for desert tortoises crossing the roads, but sadly, we saw none. However, we couldn't miss this glorious sunset on our drive south. Our little caravan at this point consisted of just Matt and Amy's family and ours, as Joey and Em had gone ahead, and Addie and Dad were a ways behind, and taking the big highway. We travel similarly, driving fairly slowly. sticking together, and unable to resist beauty!

Next up: our adventures in Joshua Tree!


I'm glad you are doing this series! This is a part of California that we've never explored and we really need to get over there.
thewoodenroad said…
i'm already longing so desperately to be back
Tera said…
These are dreamy trips! Years from now, the memories your girls will have of their cousins and family on these trips, then continuing these trips with their own families is a long lasting and edifying gift. As for vintage metal parks... You would love Oklahoma. The state is full of vintage parks!!!

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