So I went walking in Death Valley last month. It’s something I do every two or three years, and of course I see the ironies of complaining that it gets ever more crowded and less wild each time, but it’s what I do. And I’ve been going there for 30 years, long enough to be able to justify some grumpiness about change and decay.
There was snow on the high ground in Death Valley when I was there this time, and some of the main roads were closed, and some were still washed out from last year, which made the various trails and attractions that were accessible more crowded than ever.
Echoing Edward Abbey, I have been known to rail against “industrial tourism,” not least because it reduces vast, diverse landscapes to a series of sites and trails, scenic overlooks, points of interest, and so on. You’re told what to look for; you’re told what to see. Giving these things names – the Devil’s Cornfield, Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point - only adds to the problem. The “attractions” become a kind of checklist that you can tick off and have done with.
So yes, visitors flock to these designated sites but more than that, it means that a lot of visitors see nothing except those sites; the 3 million acres of Death Valley are perceived simply as territory you cross on the way to the next attraction.
Now, I’m not a complete misanthrope, and when I’m walking in the crowds of New York or London I’m very happy to consider myself part of teeming humanity. But when I’m in the middle of 3 million acres of desert then I think it’s reasonable to want a little space to myself.
But the beauty part of this form of industrial tourism is that if you choose to go somewhere that hasn’t been designated as a tourist site then chances are you’ll not see another soul. And so I found myself stopping the car in various unmarked bits of land, pulling off the road and parking, then just walking off into the desert, walking for as long as seemed natural, and then turning around and walking back. I was to say “walking off into some unremarkable bit of desert,” but the fact is, all of Death Valley is remarkable. You’d have to be as insensate as a rock (or a moody adolescent) to set foot in Death Valley and not experience a profound sense of the gorgeously threatening grandeur of the earth.
I ended up here:
I think I could probably just about find my way back to these places, but maybe I couldn’t, and in any case it doesn’t seem to matter so very much. It is, as they say, all good. The fact that these places don’t have names – Nicholson’s Loop, for instance – is all to the good, if you ask me.
Still, I think there are some questions to be asked about whether a walk needs a destination; and I don’t have an absolute answer. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good journey’s end, a peak or a ruin or a scenic overview, I do: but they never seem either necessary or sufficient for a good walk. And in my miscellaneous walking this time in Death Valley I did find myself thinking about two lines from the Dylan song Isis “She said where you been?/I said no place special.” But maybe that line doesn’t apply to walking since there’s no such thing as “no place special,” because all places are special one way or another, although that’s not to say that they’re all equal, or equally interesting.
A walk around the rim of a volcanic crater whether alone or in the company of others probably has more going for it than a walk round the parking lot at K-Mart, but that’s no reason only to walk around craters.
You can see how a man might tie himself in knots with these matters.
Anyhow, on the way back from Death Valley, coming through Yucca Valley, I did a walk I’d been promising to do for a while, in the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, which consists of a “modest” 25,500 acres, and the walk was modest too, about two miles in each direction up through Pipes Canyon to something known as the Olson Ruins. The map you pick up at the Ranger station has them as “Olsen Ruins” but most sources have the name as Olson.
I think you know I like walking in ruins, though I hadn’t done any research about these particular ruins. And so I walked up a clearly marked and perhaps slightly too well kept trail (a ranger told me they had high school “volunteers” to keep it in good condition), past petroglyphs, Joshua Trees that had been burned in the Pioneertown fire some ten years back, past willow beds, through small scattered patches of snow.
Compared with Death Valley the landscape was tame, and there were one or two other walkers but fewer than you’d have found on any recognized trail in Death Valley.
And in due course there were the ruins, picturesque to a degree, and a reasonable journey’s end, but nothing on the grand scale – just somebody’s house, the roof and windows gone, and most of the walls gone too, though there was one room you could actually walk into, that was completely intact, and the corners of the cabin were more or less solid - you could see the chicken wire construction.
As I said, I hadn’t researched the Olson Ruins, but once I got home, I did. The story goes that the cabin belonged to an onyx miner named John Olson who’d been mining since the 1920s. He was still there in 1945 and one day he encountered a young man living rough in the desert, a man in his early 20s (sources seem uncertain about his exact age) named Edward E. Emmery, a soldier recently returned from Burma who had just (oh the irony) deserted from Fort MacArthur.
Olson, in his mid 70s, invited Emmery to stay in the cabin, and conditions must have been crowded, and the two guys must have been in each other’s way. But that doesn’t seem much of an explanation for why, a few days later, Emmery shot Olson and fled the scene, returning to the open desert, taking food from the cabin with him..
Four days later Olson was still alive and was discovered by friends and taken to hospital, but he died there. Emmery was caught a few days after that. Emmery claimed the shooting was accidental, but nobody believed him, and he was charged with murder. I haven’t been able to find out what happened to Emmery.
A cabin makes a good destination for a walk (there are quite a few in Death Valley – and indeed a book about them), a ruined cabin is even better, but a ruined murder cabin – ah, that’s the stuff. I’m sure they’d get more visitors if they named it The Olson Murder Ruins, but I’m very glad they don’t.