Butte Valley’s Room With A View

Geologist’s Cabin at Anvil Spring

A

perfect evening in the Geologist’s Cabin with Mark. The cabin was built by a geologist before the turn of the last century, and so the name. If ever there was a room with a view, this is it. Out the window is the magnificent Striped Butte, catching the last rays of a dying day. The butte gives Butte Valley its name, rising out of the floor of its southern toe just about smack in the center of this broadly sloping high desert plain. Rather than flat-topped like a mesa, as its name would imply, Striped Butte is a triangular mound several hundred feet high. From this side, the east side, the amazing rock is striped with nearly vertical calico bands running top to bottom. The west side of the butte is nearly smooth, reflecting a formerly flat surface. It appears to have been thrust up and tilted by ancient, unknowable geologic forces. It also is a curiosity: clearly a sedimentary formation, it is surrounded on all sides by granite mountains. I stopped by the cabin earlier today after toiling up the old Warm Springs Canyon road from Death Valley. A lone cottonwood tree, the only one for miles, shadows the cabin and guided me in. I wasn’t sure if it was inhabited or not. I saw it last year on a trip with Dustin and Ritchie, but then a truck was parked under the tree so we didn’t go in.

Today, I seem to have the valley all to myself. I drove slowly up the little rise to the cabin, parked, and hailed. No response. Tentatively I approached and let myself in through the unlocked wooden door. The cabin was empty, but it looked amazingly well preserved, like it was being lived in. The rock-walled cabin is about dozen feet wide and fifteen or so long. A stone fireplace occupies one end, two large wood-framed windows let in the light. The flat, tar-papered roof appears sound. The whole place is in great shape, complete with that rarity in the desert, unbroken window glass. There’s a chair or two, an ancient set of bed springs, an old but still solid wooden table, and a microwave oven with a hand-lettered sign saying “Mouse-Proof Storage”. The cabin is built next to Anvil Spring, a sweet-water spring. On a shelf above the table I spotted a hardbound journal. I was delighted and amazed to discover that it is a log of entries by passers-by like me. And those who know about the cabin take care of it! Nearly every writing mentions the unsurpassed grandeur of the place, the solitary beauty, or something they’ve done for the cabin. “Brought up some paint and gave a new layer to the outside window frames,” says one entry. “Tar-papered the roof,” says another. Or: “Fixed the busted door hinge.” I left some sodas and firewood as my gift and an entry in the journal.

Striped Butte, Center Left, from the Geologists Cabin

Continuing on, I drove over Mengel Pass and took the rough 4-wheel track down Goler Wash, named after John Goler, a German-speaking immigrant and part of an ill-fated wagon party that ended up lost in Death Valley in the winter of 1849. Talk about the shortcut from Hell! Apparently Goler and a few others came out this way, leaving a larger party of men, women and children hopelessly stuck and starving in their infamous Long Camp in the middle of Death Valley The story is that Goler may have discovered gold somewhere along here, although he was too far gone to care. He later wrote that he and a companion, having burned their wagons in Death Valley, were searching the wash for a way out and desperate for water. His friend shouted over to him, “See what I have found!” Goler asked if it was water. “No, it is gold!” Goler replied, “I want no gold now. I want water and bread, which gold will not buy in this place. I would not pick it up here. Let us go and see if we can find water or we will soon die.” Goler and his friend didn’t die, and eventually made it out to the village of San Bernardino. Gold was later taken from here, but not by Goler, although more than once he came back in search of it. I headed down to the former gold boomtown of Ballarat, now a ghost town, on the near side of the Panamint Valley, to meet my friend Mark. I found him there, in the graveyard, idly passing the time of day. A beer and a cigar later, we stashed his sagging old Plymouth Mastodon in a side canyon and took my truck back up the way I had just come down, through Mengel Pass. Passed the old Barker Ranch, once the hideout of the murderous Charles Manson and his gang. Stopped to chat with another couple of 4-wheelers partway up Goler Wash. They didn’t know about the cabin; I hoped it would still be unoccupied. Coming up over Mengel Pass, I noticed a thin trail of oil on the road. It got heavier as I drove, until I found a large oil-coated rock in the middle of the road. Somebody probably punched a hole in their oil pan here. Too bad. It surely ruined their day. It is a long way down Goler Wash to go for help. The driver might not have noticed the problem until his engine overheated on the way up to the pass. But there was no vehicle there, so he must have made it out somehow. After an easy recrossing of the Pass, we found the Geologist’s Cabin empty, though somebody had already taken the firewood and sodas I left earlier. Tonight the evening is perfect. A semi-warm fire (plenty of heart, very little heat) in our drafty old fireplace, fueled by stray timbers picked up along the road, barely wards off the evening chill at this 4,500-foot-elevation, but a good cigar and a fine port give the evening a nice glow.

While we’re getting into our sleeping bags, Mark entertains a couple mice. He’s given them a chocolate Santa to play with, and they are all over it. The flashlight beam does not faze them; they scurry around our feet and run over our bags. Just what I want to snuggle up with tonight, I think. Just after dawn the next morning, Mark and I are having coffee to shake off the effects of last night’s imbibing when we see several horsemen riding across the sage-covered valley from down the direction of Anvil Canyon. It takes them quite a while but eventually they arrive here at Anvil Springs. Turns out these six or eight men and women are spending five days traveling across the Panamint Range on horseback. Seems to me a great way to see the countryside. We chat with them amiably for some time as they water their horses at the spring. Out here, you have to plan your route carefully if you’re working with livestock. The next water is likely a long day’s ride away. * * * *

The Geologist’s Cabin is not the only “lodging” in Butte Valley, as it turns out. A half-mile south of here is Greater View Spring. Although the spring looks bone-dry now, it’s the site of the old Mormon Cabin built by a Mormon mining party in 1869. That was just two decades after William Manley and John Rogers hiked out of Death Valley (and possibly through this valley) to bring back help for their beleaguered fellow ‘49ers in the Long Camp. Carl Mengel lived at the Mormon Cabin off and on from about 1912 until shortly before he died in 1944. He worked a couple gold claims down Goler Wash and over in Redlands Canyon. I haven’t been in Redlands yet, but am told you can still see the remains of his 3stamp gold mill there. Some called him Peg Leg Mengel, on account of him having to cut off part of his foot when a mine roof caved in on him and pinned his leg under a huge boulder. At least that was his story. He survived the collapse by a good many years, and is buried up the hill from the spring. In 1938, the Federal Writers Project of FDR’s Works Progress Administration published Death Valley: A Guide. In it they describe Carl Mengel, then living at Greater View Spring: “…Carl Mengel [was] once a prospecting partner of Shorty Harris. The view for which the spring is named is eastward, over the Funeral Mountains; it is one of the wide, far-reaching panoramas typical of the Death Valley region. The big cottonwood trees here, 45 years old, are near Mengel's neat, whitewashed stone house, which has 18-inch walls that are rather successful non-conductors of heat and cold. In 1912 Carl Mengel bought the Oro Fino claim in Goler Wash. At that time ore from the mine had to be carried out on mules; while Mengel was trying to find a better trail down to Panamint Valley, he picked up a piece of float in Goler Wash. He panned it by the light of a campfire and found the ore so rich in gold that he stopped looking for an easier trail from his old claim, and went to work on the new one the very next morning. The ore was rich - some of it ran $3500 a ton - but the deposit was small.”

The cabin is now known as Stella’s Place. That’s for Stella Andersen, a feisty miner born in 1902, who apparently moved in here after Carl Mengel died and left the place vacant. She is the only woman I’ve heard of among the small legion of pickaxe prospectors. The first time I saw the cabin, tucked into a little draw, I didn’t think much of it. The roof was collapsing, the place was dank and dark, the spring was dry, and mice droppings were everywhere. A singularly uninviting, decaying place. I did not go inside. On revisiting the place ten years later, in December of 2000, the scene was vastly improved. The corrugated tin roof is fixed and securely fastened down with heavy wires, the spring is active, and visitors are encamped inside. They are friendly folk; I met a few of their group on the road to Outlaw Cave a couple miles back. They are staying here over the New Years holiday. They welcomed me in to take a look around. The cabin is one large room, with a kitchen area built against the hill. One window lets in light, but the ceiling is low, giving the place a distinctly cramped feeling. Mice still rule, according to the visitors. A few dozen paces from the cabin is a little rickety outhouse named “Randy”. Amazingly, the interior walls are adorned with many clippings and pictures, some decades old. Stella’s wartime ration books and coupons are stapled to the wall. Her stats are above the door: Stella Andersen Born 2/2/1902 Dixon, Mo. Died 7/30/1984 Bakersfield, Calif. Her picture adorns one wall. In it she appears to be in her 30s, a proper-looking maiden for the time. It is hard to imagine this young, sweet-looking woman living here on her own for three decades. She must have been one tough broad. I would love to have met her. But I am reminded of Fletch Tweed’s story that she didn’t care for visitors, and often used her shotgun to warn them away. In one clipping on her wall, she talks about how she would like to have a CB radio to keep in touch with her neighbors in the valley and her friends “down below”. Fletch once told me she got her wish, when friends in Trona brought up a full CB hookup so she could communicate with the outside world. She was a rugged miner for years, at least into her early 70s, always working alone and always looking for that elusive gold or silver strike. She left Butte Valley at the age of 75. Nailed to the inside door is her going-away gift to future visitors, a hand-lettered note that says: Be gentle in my little mud house, it is

“so fragile”. Please don’t climb on the roof, it will cave in on you. I hope you enjoy yourselves. Thank You Stella Andersen * * * *

Chatting with the visitors here, they tell me of yet another cabin nearby, this one called Russell’s Camp. I am astonished. Half a dozen times exploring through this valley, and I had never discovered it. Geologist’s Cabin: austere, rugged, spectacular view. Stella’s Place: charming, authentic, droopy. Russell’s Camp: sheer poetry and magic. Russell’s Camp occupies a secluded side draw not far from Stella’s Place, completely hidden from the “main” Jeep road. As I drive up to it, I am overcome with a sense of wonder and awe. There are three structures on the hillside, topping a well-built rock wall and shaded by three thriving cottonwoods. I climb out of the truck and Ginseng and I walk the last few yards to the house. Immediately we are greeted by the sound of gurgling water from a thicket of lush green foliage to one side of the first outbuilding. The next sound makes me turn quickly: the gentle sound of a dinner bell ringing. On approaching closer, however, I discover that I am hearing an old cast-iron skillet hanging by a heavy wire in a tree, with a big old metal kitchen spoon hanging next to it. The breeze is gently banging them together. The next tree is hung with several dozen similar old, rusted utensils and tools, rustling together in the breeze like a wind chime. The trees themselves are in good shape, since they are watered from the spring uphill by a open trough. The middle structure apparently is the main cabin. The door carries a painted sign in bright red letters: R u s s e l

l s C a m p A l l W e l c o m e

The door has a latch but no lock. I enter. The first room is a kitchen and dining area, about 12’ by 12’, very light, with a wonderful welcoming energy. It has a cement floor and tin roof with and wooden walls. An old, possibly useable wood cook stove is against one wall, next to a sink with running water from the spring outside. Here, as at Stella’s, clippings, pictures, and old calendars are lacquered to the walls. I pause to read a long and rambling newspaper account of how Panamint Russell personally “lost” a silver vein in these parts and spent the subsequent years looking for it. The article was published in Bakersfield in 1964, and he was living here at the time. I do not know when he left. A note from Panamint Russell welcomes everyone and gives precise instructions to those who would follow on how to care for the three trees out front. I guess it worked; they seem to be in good shape. Amazingly, there is no graffiti and no one appears to have thoughtlessly carved their name on walls or furniture. The second room is a bedroom, with two metal spring beds and an old wooden chair. Travelers occupy this cabin, too; their gear is stowed on the bed, although the cabin is empty at the moment. I am gratified that they apparently feel safe enough to leave their goods here, and I leave it untouched.

Third room: the library. A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf holds perhaps 250 paperback books of varying ages, and two old, sagging easy chairs invite a pause and a rest. A solar-heated shower is off this room. The second structure, somewhat larger than the first, appears to be two large bedrooms, with curtains and beds and more gear stowed neatly on each bed. One room has a sign above the door: Honeymoon Suite. Peering through dusty windows in the third building, I see that it holds old tools and scrap. I wander out to the “patio” under the trees, and greet some other visitors arriving. As I leave the place, I look up at the top of the knoll that hides the house from the road. There, right on top, are two old lawn chairs. Surely that must be the best view of Butte Valley at sunset. * * * *

I have now been to this remarkable valley several times. In one sense, each visit is like the first: driving up a dry wash in mounting excitement and anticipation, wondering what the next turn, the next rise will bring, until finally I pop over the pass and the valley spreads out before me. And yet every visit yields different vistas and new adventures. The light in wintertime plays interesting games in this valley. From one direction, the valley seems flat and fairly level. But go out a couple miles and look back, and you discover the valley floor is not flat at all, but sloping one way toward Warm Springs Canyon and the road out to Death Valley, and the other toward Anvil Canyon. Distances seem foreshortened here, so that everything actually is twice as far as my brain thinks it is. This place never fails to charm me. It is sweetness beyond measure to witness the winter afternoon settle serenely, blithely on the naked shoulders of Striped Butte. Return to Contents

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