Moving closer to school is out of the question; she can't afford to pay rent. The family's compact two-bedroom home, decorated with Indian quilts and art, is fully paid for.
In any case, Watterson said, she never intends to leave the land of her ancestors again. An interlude in Des Moines before Marlee was born depressed her — the concrete buildings, the pollution and noise, the crime. "I felt like I was choking to death," she said.
She missed the vast beauty of her tribal homeland — the desert blooms and splash of starlight, the yowl of coyotes piercing an otherwise silent night. Shortly after Marlee was born, she returned to Death Valley.
"This is our land — all of it," said Watterson, sweeping her arm across the desert vista as she and Marlee sat outside with Batman, their dog. "I'm never leaving Timbisha again."
Other Death Valley families are considering their options. Barb and Paul Taylor say they may move to Texas with their son, 11-year-old Zachary. They both have steady work at a Furnace Creek restaurant but say the drive to school would cost them $1,000 a month in gas — wiping out much of their disposable income — and conflict with their work hours.
They can afford a computer and Internet service, should home schooling be their only option, but say they would not want that for their son.
"School is about more than learning; it's the only time Zach can socialize with other kids," his mother said.
Paul Taylor said the transportation cuts amount to discrimination.
"The poor won't have an opportunity to educate their kids, and this is the only chance they have to get out of poverty," he said. "They'll be forced to use welfare and cost the state more in the long run."
In Death Valley, the $210,000 transportation budget is one-sixth of the district's $1.2-million operating budget, a far higher proportion than in more compact districts. Copeland said he will use the district's reserve funds to maintain bus service for the rest of the school year, at a cost of $105,000.
But there won't be any money left to pay for busing next year, he said. That's why Copeland has discussed layoffs or pay cuts with some of his 22 employees. He has contacted his state legislative representatives about trying to restore Death Valley's state funding.
Copeland also supports Brown's proposed ballot measure to raise money for schools through tax increases, although the nonpartisan state legislative analyst has said the taxes could bring in much less than the governor is counting on.
At least for now, the buses are still rolling.
On a recent afternoon at Death Valley High School, Marlee chats with a classmate as she works on an art project about a rare trip away from the desert to San Diego. The students wonder whether there will be enough money to bus the track team to meets; if not, there may be no track this year.
The school has already pulled out of a basketball and volleyball league because the games were as far as seven hours away by bus and required overnight stays. Instead, Copeland is trying to arrange games with schools "close to home," which means within a two-hour drive.
At 2:30 p.m., Marlee, Zachary and seven classmates board the bus for the long ride home. Most of them sleep. Zachary listens to Usher and Bruno Mars on his iPod Nano, puzzles over math homework and stares out the window.
On good days, there is something new to see: thick blankets of fog and mist, maybe some road kill, maybe a red-tailed hawk. Mostly, it is a long, boring trip.
But the students can't imagine life without it.
"Without the bus," Marlee said, "I would die."