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Coming Alive in Death Valley : Vast Spaces and Small Crowds Make the Desert Monument a Perfect Place to Rejuvenate


DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL MONUMENT, Calif. — We are careening up a dirt road high in the scrub brush of the Panamint Range, trying to make Skidoo before sundown.

Even in our heavy, middle-aged Cadillac, carriage of the desert, the washboards are rough. It's hard to find the right speed for the least vibration. The car is shaking apart, side mirrors rattling crazily, nuts backing off screws. Unnoticed in the commotion, the front license plate falls away and disappears in billows of dust.

Nine miles from the paved road, we make a last hairpin turn, come up on the flat and find, at first glance, nothing. Apart from a few stray pieces of rust-eaten metal there are only a couple of signs. One announces the site of the gold camp now remembered for its jaunty name, $1.5 million in pre-World War I gold and faded fame as the town where "Joe Simpson was lynched for the murder of Jim Arnold."

Yet Skidoo bears closer inspection. The second sign warns that there are more than 1,000 holes in the surrounding hills, a thousand attempts to find gold.

And we are alone to find them.

Before the light begins to fade, we poke our noses into an old prospector's dugout, saunter over to a couple of dusty mine shafts--and, finally, all preoccupations of city life are gone.

The calm, the lack of crowds in Death Valley National Monument is a surprise to many first-timers.

Even in the tourist season, solitude and a great stillness make up most of the daily experience of anyone who goes to see the place itself--rather than to perform routine recreation in an exotic locale. (There is golf, tennis, swimming.) Only around the restaurants and saloons at Furnace Creek Ranch and Inn are you likely to feel part of a crowd.

At the Inn, in fact, after a day of visiting ruins, or dozing around the rock-walled swimming area, you and a chum can maintain that certain stillness by retreating to the cavernous comfort of the Oasis Room bar. You can even avoid the main dining room by taking your supper at the Inn's Italian restaurant, L'Ottimo's, next door.

The Oasis Room is easily the most elegant part of the Inn, with great beams from an old railroad trestle overhead, copper, stone and deep-cushioned booths.

The rest of the Inn is a sometimes curious mix of decors. The acoustical tile in the dining rooms may have been fashionable in the 1930s, when the Inn was new. And a small, concrete fountain in the lobby, serviced by a humble arrangement of PVC plastic pipe, may have a history all its own.

Still, you can't help liking the lighted rock pathways through the palm garden and the charming old guest rooms, immaculate and comfortable with plush towels, satellite TVs and thick walls. Most face out across the desert; some are next to the wicker chaise lounges of the terrace, or the gardens. It's the Chateau Marmont of the desert.

Dinner is presented with much ceremony by the waiter--more ceremony than given it in the kitchen. The mediocrity of the Inn's food is legendary in itself; many locals refuse to eat there. Still, over the sorbet, we vow to take tomorrow's horseback ride up the hill in back, to the springs that make the Inn possible.

But by the first new morning of our three-day visit, that will seem all too much effort. That, and hiking, and bringing a four-wheel-drive for the back country, will be for a longer stay.

Death Valley, this time, is more a place for staring, as it should be for urban escapees who spend their lives doing battle in large, windowless rooms.

"Its absolute indifference steadied me," writer Gretel Erhlich observed about a similar Western landscape in "The Solace of Open Spaces." Death Valley has the same effect.

The weather, for the most part, is also comfortable. When we visited three weeks ago, the daytime temperatures were in the 60s, and we needed a sweater at night. But in spring and fall, the best time to visit, they rise another 20 to 30 degrees. Even in summer, the intense, dry heat can be tolerable and relaxing, if you keep your fluids up.

It is not a sandy waste. Though there are dunes--about 14 square miles of them--most of what you touch and see will be an extravagant diversity of rock and colored earth, as well as 200 square miles of salt pan on the valley floor.

"This place is different," said Irma Hartsock a few weeks ago, leaning against a van stuffed with sleeping bags and backpacks.

"Because of the lack of vegetation, looking at the rock formations you can see the structure of the mountains," she explained. Hartsock, a second-grade teacher from the Riverside area, was there to hunt fossils with fellow students in a Cal State San Bernardino paleontology class.

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