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Southern California, is the Pacific coast playground of the rebel without a cause hot rod car culture and Surf City, where, the Beach Boys promise, there are two girls for every boy. Northern California however, is the John Muir high country of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the majesty of Yosemit e. Coastal redwoods and mountain sequoias, woodland giants in a rich Lord of the Rings environment that encourages contemplation and meditation. The City of Los t Angels, home to lights, cameras, action! Hollywood! San Francisco to the north , is where the North Beach beat goes on much as it did in the Kerouac era of che ap port and poetry, and Haight Ashbury in the Sixties was the gravitational cent er of a new spiritual and political universe spinning out of control in a psyche delic orbit. California Dreamin' was becoming an eight mile high rolling paper r eality with it's non-stop influx of youthful immigrants from the middle west mid dle class seeking an upbeat Upton Utopia that turned out to be as disorienting a s an opium dream at best. I had been living in the Haight since early 1966 and by the time of the Summer o f Love Normandy Invasion of 1967, the streets had lost their luster, and were no w a charlatans cacophony of spare changers, speed freaks, heroin dealers and pre dators. Hip was dead and buried, and I packed it up for the insane sanity of Nor th Beach. My girlfriend at the time, Myrika, was a German artist and musician wh o had come to the states for a short visit and decided to stay. She sketched and painted while I spent hours writing in my journal, as our North Beach days were spent in exploration of the artistic and literary abstract, along with some of the best Italian sausage and vino in town. One night while walking along strip c lub infested area of Columbus Avenue near our apartment , she asked about the Am erican deserts. Germany, famous for forests, lakes and rivers it seems, did not have a desertstrasse to save it's life and wanted to experience the expanse and tranquility only it can offer. Infinity itself, defined in terms of endless hori zons and a vast ocean of sand, plants and animals. She wanted to sketch "stories " as she called them of the desert diversity and illusions it can create. She al so just wanted to hear, experience and tape record the howl of the romantic Cary Grant leading man of the desert, the coyote. it didn't take much to persuade John and his girlfriend, Olivia, good friends of mine and kindred spirits in Berkeley, to gas up the aging, coughing VW Microbus he owned to take to the road and head to Death Valley near the Panamint Mountai ns in southern California. Both were aspiring filmmakers so this was a f-stop op portunity to photograph and film a day in the life of the desert, except that da y would turn into two weeks of more than just Ansel Adams antics. The peace symb ol festooned magic microbus picked us at our apartment and was already fully loa ded with Nikons, black & white film, two movie cameras, 16 mm film, cooking equi pment, sleeping bags, food, wine, books, tripods, two kites, lanterns, built in camp cook stove, and a load of wood for fires John always kept handy for the man y trips we would make down the coast to Big Sur to camp on the beach. The bus ha d been named Big Sur in the beaches honor one night around a big blur of a drunk en campfire on the big beach at Big Sur. We did Big Sur it once again that night as it would have been blasphemy not to and headed out the next morning after a magnificent sunrise for the land of borax, mule teams of twenty and a saltwater lake called Bad Water. On the road again, cutting over to San Luis Obisbo, then Bakersfield and then into the valley of death rode the microbus four. Death Valley National Monument, as it was first designated in 1933, was elevated to "park" status in 1994. Tourism was off and running from the starting line in the 1920's as Henry Ford's assembly lines went on blue collar factory overdrive to mass produce automobiles at a pace and price within reach of the motor mad m asses. The supposed curative powers of Death Valleys natural springs attracted t ourists during the flapper era of the Roaring Twenties like buzzards feasting on roadkill. Roosevelt, Franklin, not Eleanor, had the WPA programs include the bl azing of trails through the Panamint Range of the desert area and campgrounds we re set up to accommodate the new trade of auto-tourism. We arrived in Death Valley near the end of the day so decided to park it and cam
p it. In those days you could pretty well just pull off the side of the road and set up your rustic version of Xanadu and rule the realm, and we made it to Bad Water which is about the limbo pole low as you can go in the continental United States at a basement foundation depth of 282 feet below sea level. We unloaded t he sleeping bags, cook gear and food, along with one of the kites, three bottles of wine and flannel shirts for later in the evening. Limited campfires were per mitted in those days, and a pit dug in the sand sufficed as fire pit. John, in h is Muir-like wisdom had brought an ample supply of firewood along for numerous s mall fires as opposed to one that would reach the sky and herald the opening cer emony of a Burning Man gathering of the tribes. We got the camp stove fired up, black beans and rice ready to be transformed into the eighth wonder of the gastr onomical world and as the sun began to set we started the small fire, broke out a guitar and my harmonica as Myrika sketched madly away in her book, Olivia unlo ading her camera for some color shots of the sunset, John strumming away on the Gibson to his own tune, and me playing along on harmonica, as best I could, to a desert blues tune. Sunsets have a mystical sense all their own, but a desert sunset framed by the c hanging hues of the Panamint mountains is a Billie Holiday command performance a t Kennedy Center. The Bad Water low point's highpoint is Telescope Peak, which i s worn by the mountain range with all the flair of a ruby tiara adorning the hea d of a goddess. The peak changes hues in perfect harmony with the setting sun pl aying on it's rock solid surface, transforming it into a granite lava lamp 11,00 0 feet tall. At least that was the impression, and yes, it could have been broug ht on by the wine, or something. We talked and at times, not talked for timeless hours witnessing the sky darken itself into coal black, revealing the stars tur ned on as stage lights on opening night, filling the galactic auditorium with a band of diffused light that crossed the sky. The Milky Way was now Broadway and we had balcony seats for the big show. We heard the first note of the coyote cho rus around 11pm and Myrika dashed for her tape recorder, which was one of those old, solid as a '57 Buick reel-to-reel portable jobs with pro model microphone, and watched her as she hoped for the best in capturing the call of the wild. The rest of the evening was spent emptying the cheap bottles of wine, watching the dying embers of the fire and basking in the glow of the camp lantern hung on the open side door of Big Sur. Not enough room to sleep all inside so we took turns each night. John and Liv one night, Myrika and me the next, and so on, so on, s o on. Sleeping on the desert floor with it's surrounding silence, organic surfac e and night scents was more intoxicating than the wine. Yes, life is a cabaret o ld chum, but it's also at times a delightful Cabernet. By the way, we never did fly that kite that night. One of the highlights at night was the influx of AM ra dio signals that reached out across the dial like the tentacles of an analogue o ctopus. Fading in and out, one in particular was a strange gumbo of country, gos pel and preachers. "Mansion in the Sky" would segue into "Walking the Floor Over You" by Ernest Tubb followed by a real fire and brimstone preacher whose voice would break as he hit crescendos in his plea to his audience to seek salvation. I listened to him every night, studying his voice patterns and one night I jumpe d up from the group sitting around a small fire and started in on my best imitat ion of Elmer Gantry at a tent revival on steroids. At sunrise on our first Death Valley morning we were invigorated and ready to ex plore, so we packed up the gear after a light breakfast of sourdough bread dippe d in black coffee, a chunk of cheese and an apple (regular breakfast on the micr obus road) and the Bug Sur Expeditionary Force was on the march to the great san dy dunes and the rest of the valley. We began to fancy ourselves old grizzled prospectors with burros or what is what like to be a muleskinner at the helm of the borax mule teams in the 1870's haul ing the prized evaporite out of the valley and over the Panamints to the town of Mojave and it's railroad spur. Leaving the muleskinning to those better suited to it, we made forays into the Furnace Creek area on Highway 190 which intersect s with the more remote Bad Water Road. Passing on the "wish you were here - it' a dry heat" postcards and any sort of guided ranger tour we avoided the human ra
ce and it's excuse for civilization as best we could. Not that we had anything a gainst it, but when you live in an area where you are packed tightly into a soci ological sardine can as San Francisco was at the time, it's nice to be in your o wn oblong headlong orbit in your own oddball solar system, at least until it's t ime for re-entry into the tie-dyed atmosphere of the times. Not only that, but w e all had adverse reactions to uniformity and uniforms of any sort, including pa rk rangers. (In the early 1970's I actually studied and trained to be one, and p assed! Gasp!) Big Sur was a feisty bus and dutifully carried it's human and other cargo throug h the valley and up into the Grapevine Mountains near Furnace Creek. We had old food and wine stained maps of the area at least 10 years old at the time but it turns out it was a treasure map to a colorful portal called, appropriately, Gold en Canyon. A gorgeous gorge of sandstone in multi-layers of Cibola gold, sunset reds and fireball oranges. We parked the bus, grabbed a couple of camera's and h iking sticks to inspect the canyon on foot which in those days was a solitary af fair and silence was as golden as the stone. Today, it's one of the most popular hikes tourists tackle and though it's not quite a pedestrian traffic jam it was nice to experience it one on one. Seeking the roads less traveled we purposely avoided sites and sights such as Scotty's Castle and the visitor center as we wa nted to feel the desert as it was meant to be felt. Personal, natural and spirit ually organic. Death Valley is more than vast expanses of sand and dunes. Divers e eco-sytems manage to live as harmonious friends in this arid version of Mr. Ro gers Natural Neighborhood. The sand dunes are devilishly playful as they reach d eep inside to the child in all of us to slide down them, run down them, tumble d own them and even somersault down them at top speed as spaced out spacemen bound ing about the surface of the moon in this lunar like landscape. Other areas are home to a Garden of Eden of desert plants and bushes including creosote, mesquit e, pinon juniper, Joshua Trees and the signature plant of the desert, cactus, ca ctus and more cactus. There is surprisingly a bewildering array of wildlife so i f you thought Death Valley was just lizards, rattlesnakes and spiders, oh my, yo u'd be wrong. Birds abound as do reptiles, fish and mammals including bobcats, m ule deer (those lovable mulies), cougars and bighorn sheep in the higher elevati ons. Geologically speaking there are granite mountains and sandstone cliffs, but it i s also the home to a freak of nature Frankensteinian creation called the fulguri te. Not vulgarite, fulgurite. This tubular tribute to the power of electricity i s created when lightning strikes the sandy ground and fuses the particles into b izarre misshapen hardened tubes, some with an opacity to them. Try to imagine a circus clown forming animals out of balloons in the center ring. Not exactly, bu t it is the closest analogy I could come up with. Days were spent sketching, journal writing, movie making and photograph taking, not to mention kite flying. No trees or telephone poles to get tangled up in and if the thermal drafts were feeling generous you had an air show worthy of the B lue Angels. Photographing the sand dunes and their rippled patterns were a past time that kept the ever changing mystery of the desert fresh each day. The shape s would change subtlety while the shadows played tricks of light on the ridges o f sand. It was the deserts own effervescent light show and more interesting than anything we had seen at the Filmore during a Grateful Dead concert. The oddest moment was when a family in an Airstream pulled close to our campsite , but far enough to respect privacy, and turned out to be a family from San Dieg o, he a fireman, she a housewife, the shorter ones just kids. We had already bee n there for around a week and enjoyed every moment. He, the fireman, came over t o say "hello" so we said "hello" at the juncture when middle America meets the l iberal left. He invited us over for coffee later that night and we brought our w ine along and offered it to them. Then the most puzzling utterance occurred when he said, "We're only staying a few days and heading to the Grand Canyon, so wha t is there to do here to kill time?" Kill time? Time was a non-concept in Death Valley and besides, why would anyone want to kill it? We told him to go fly a ki te, and at first he looked insulted, at least until Liv went to the bus and retu rned with one of the kites to give to his kids.
Soon it was time to say Happy Trails to Death Valley. We had managed to enjoy he r serenity, her solitude and the bounty of her gifts of beauty and mystery of na ture. Now it was time to pack up and head back up California for the Bay Area. W e decided on the route that would take us north to Yosemite an El Capitan fix be fore leaping headlong back into the Bay Area madness that was the Sixties. We'd miss the coyotes and the sky full of stars, but had memories and impressions tha t would last a lifetime and to this day visit Death Valley whenever I am in the area as though dropping in on an old friend. Myrika eventually had to go back to Germany, bad visa, John is now since long gone and buried, Oly bolted to Minnea polis in 1970. Death Valley however remains as a reminder of those days. I only wonder what ever became of the microbus. Oh, yeah, the desert made such an impre ssion on John, that he renamed her Bad Water.
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