Thanksgiving in the Valley of the Shadow of Death
Part Two

text & photographs
by Randall Woods



"But it's so hard / it's really hard
Sometimes I feel like going down..."

As the disk of the November sun began peeking over the ridge to my right, I gave my little rented Plymouth Neon an extra burst of fuel and accelerated along Nevada's Rte. 95. I had much planned for that morning. It was Thanksgiving 1999, and I had a lot of avoidance to do before the sun completed its path across the sky. As part of my new tradition on this, my most hated holiday, I was heading through the desert in a quest to do the opposite of most typical celebrants of the Great American Gorge-Fest. Rather than hunker down in a crowded living room, wear uncomfortable clothes and choke down vats of overcooked food, I chose to escape to where the spaces are wide open, the scenery is breathtaking and the people are hard to find.

My destination was Death Valley, California, just over the Funeral Mountains on my left -- one of the hottest, driest, loneliest places in America, and certainly the lowest spot on the continent. I had all my tapes at the ready, cued to songs that fit the theme of the trip. A fat, late-model Elvis Presley, who probably didn't miss many Thanksgiving dinners in his day, crooned one of his last '70s hits, "Way Down" ("...way on dow-w-w-w-wn..."), as the road flattened out and straightened into the Amargosa Desert.

Because few other drivers shared the road, and since I hadn't seen any cops since the Las Vegas city limits back in the pre-dawn hours, it was easy to open up the peppy little Neon to a cruising speed of 90+ mph. With so few landmarks to see in the scrub of the desert, the speed was hardly noticeable. Other than the few shrubs and cactuses, the only other objects to catch the eye were the handful of trailers on the side of the road, a few telephone poles and some passing 18-wheelers.

Not a turkey in sight. I was in heaven.

" first legal advertisement for the World's Oldest Profession."


Mo' Beatty Blues

The first noteworthy town I came across was Beatty, Nevada, a still-operating mining town that seemed reluctant to give up its hard-hat, blue-collar lifestyle for the inevitable onslaught of tourist dollars. There were plenty of "Western-style" tourist shops with nick-nacks galore, nice old preserved buildings and some pretty churches, but the outskirts of town still had that rusty junkyard feel of a community that didn't put a premium on outward appearances. People seemed to go about their business, let their paint peel, put their garbage or their rotting "fixer-upper" cars wherever they saw fit, and certainly didn't give a hoot about what the passers-by thought about it.

After passing through the little town and getting ready to U-turn my way back to the center, a billboard caught my eye up the road, which stood out from the dozens of others I had seen that morning, mainly because it was one of the few that was not entirely blank. (Apparently, the billboard folks got a teensy bit too optimistic about the growth potential for the Amargosa region.) Not only was it blank, it was painted hot pink, with black script. Intrigued, I drove closer until I could make out the words: "Angel's Ladies Ranch."

I let the words sink in for a second, then had one of those sudden realizations one gets when one's little cocoon of life is briefly cracked open to reveal another way of perceiving the world. After being exposed to countless romanticized depictions of illicit prostitution in books, television and movies, and seeing the sadness of the Real McCoy on some of the meaner street-corners back home in D.C., I had finally seen my first legal advertisement for the World's Oldest Profession. I realized I had crossed from Vegas' Clark County into the wilds of Nye County, where peddling flesh was A-O.K. I've always found it funny how the counties surrounding Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe -- arguably the Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem of vice and corruption -- are the only counties in Nevada that outlaw prostitution. Now, here I was at the outskirts of an actual, state-sanctioned "brothel" -- a word that conjures up images that seem to exist only in ancient foreign lands and D.W. Griffith movies. "Wow," I thought absently. "I guess these places really exist."

Being the red-blooded, curious, unattached American lad that I am, I slowly pulled over to see what kind of fabled place "Angel" had wrought. (Plus, it seemed a fitting anti-Thanksgiving kind of place.) From the pink billboard, a gravel road wound about 100 or so yards up a slight rise through some sagebrush to a pink and white double-wide trailer. White shutters with little heart-shaped cut-outs hung on the sides of the darkened windows and flowers grew in little flower boxes under the sills. In a vain attempt to create a sense of warm domesticity, a small picket fence and some flagstones were placed out front. That's about as far as the decorating budget was stretched, however. Behind the trailer were a couple other ramshackle buildings and several beat-up pickups and cars parked haphazardly. Various pieces of rusting machinery were also strewn about, most notably the corroded hulk of a 1930s-era twin-engine airplane parked near the entrance, with shrubs growing out of the broken cockpit windows. Not a soul could be seen, nor a sound heard, except for the creaking of rusted metal in the wind.

So much for sharing the fantasy.



I wondered how many thousands of horny young teens and frustrated older men had driven up that driveway to relieve their sweaty lust on these poor women. I could only imagine the state of decrepitude of the "ladies" being fed and watered by Mr. Angel inside that cramped-looking trailer. With scruples intact, I slowly backed down the driveway and headed back toward Beatty, leaving Angel and his ladies in relative peace.

After passing back through the town, I turned southwest on Rte. 374, pointing myself in the direction of the pass that at last allowed entrance to Death Valley. However, down the road a mile or two was another stop I had planned to make along the way -- the "ghost town" of Rhyolite, Nevada.

Begun as a small gold mining operation from the "Bullfrog strike" in 1904, the town of Rhyolite quickly metastasized into a picture-perfect boom town of more than 3,500 by 1907. Unlike other boom towns, Rhyolite was designed for longevity, with several three-story masonry buildings, three separate rail lines, three water systems, electricity, telephones, an opera house and even a few baseball teams. But by 1909, the bust had already begun, following the diversion of materials after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and a shaky U.S. economy in 1907-08. As businesses began to flee, the population quickly shriveled -- 675 souls by 1910, and just 14 in 1919 -- until the electricity was finally shut off and the post office closed. Since then, the buildings were mostly left to bake and crumble in the sun, minimally protected by the Bureau of Land Management, while the mines in the Bullfrog district continued to flourish.

I passed some enormous, flat-topped earthen mounds, which resembled truncated Mexican pyramids, but were actually vast piles of frighteningly toxic mill tailings from the gold mines that are still in operation today. Curving around one of the mine-scarred mountains in the area, I came upon the barely recognizable ruin of Rhyolite, nestled in a natural bowl formed by the nearby hills. Only a few streets and perhaps a dozen mostly collapsed buildings are now all that's left of the boom years. Only about 10 or 12 other tourists were scattered around the ruins, so I felt like I pretty much had the place to myself. The few delicate facades left from the town bank, school and general store, resembling the pitted columns of ancient Rome, were slowly illuminated by the orange rays of the sun, which rose over the town's surrounding hills.

After hiking around the rubble of Rhyolite for a few hours, I saw a couple of loaded-down SUVs come up the road and decided it was time to push on, ahead of the tourist wave. Upon leaving Rhyolite, I noticed another seemingly abandoned human settlement -- the Beatty Regional Airport. At first, it just looked like another unmarked strip of pavement in the middle of nowhere, which I assumed was part of the mine. When I got closer, though, I could see it had a small building and a radio tower next to it. Upon further inspection, I could see a couple of Cessna-type planes sitting out in the open, with no fence surrounding them.

I assumed I would come to a locked gate or a surly-looking local, which would have easily turned me away, but there was nothing and nobody around to stop me. The only people I saw were two men in acrylic baseball caps who were shooting rifles at an adjacent outdoor firing range. If there were ever going to be two guys who could dissuade me from proceeding onto the airport grounds, it was going to be these two characters! But neither of them gave me a second glance, so I drove right onto the tarmac. Taking one last look around for any official-looking people or incoming planes, I pulled out past the parked Cessnas and drove onto the runway.

I couldn't help myself -- I've wanted to take off in my own airplane since I knew what airplanes were. This was probably the closest I'll ever come to it, and probably the only time I'll be able to try it. I positioned my car at the far end, lined up perfectly over the dotted line, and ... GO! I opened up the throttle and tried to see what my li'l Neon had in her. By the mid-point of the runway, I was actually going fast enough to get the feeling of impending take-off, with the dotted line zipping by underneath my wheels. Just before I hit the brakes to keep me from flying off the runway, into the rocks and desert shrubs, I glanced down at my speedometer and notched my own, personal land-speed record: 112 mph, and proud of it!

Soon after, I discovered that all the testosterone that had been released by my near-flight experience had made me hungry. Yeah, I still had a sacred duty to avoid Thanksgiving and all, but a man's gotta eat, y'know? Once I got back on the main road to Death Valley, I resumed my normal cruising speed of at least 80 and headed for the border.

"...perpetually manned at all times by at least three elderly women in jogging suits either accented or monogrammed by a Ronco 'Bedazzler.' "


A few miles before the California line, as I expected, there was the obligatory "Welcome to Nevada Weird Border Casino." At approximately every intersection of pavement and state line in Nevada, there is a stark reminder of what has justified Nevada's existence for much of the last century: the opportunity to piss your child's college fund away on slot machines. At first, you'd see some casinos spring up at some of the major border areas, like Laughlin, Tahoe and West Wendover, Nevada, which basically say to anyone passing by: "Ha, ha! You don't have gambling and we do! Don't you wish you were here?" But now, with several states and American Indian tribes making gambling legal, Nevada has had more competition than ever in the "You Bet Your Life" sweepstakes. Now, they have to turn every penny arcade, two-bit motel and desert outhouse into a "gaming extravaganza."

Essentially a string of gift shops that have been hollowed out and joined as one big ball o' Western gambling fun, the layout of these mini-casinos is depressingly common. First, the outside is almost always faux-Old-West weathered wood, covering a layer of drywall, no doubt. If it isn't all wood, there is at least a wagon wheel, cowboy or cactus silhouette, or a solemn wooden Indian statue placed prominently near the entrance, preferably edged in neon to attract the nighttime suckers from the highway. Ironically, many of these anchor casinos are located right in the heart of downtown at a time when downtowns all across America are being sucked dry by the immense gravitational pull of the Wal-Marts and Price Clubs in the exurbs. Though they are usually off the scale on the "tacky-o-meter," at least they are helping to keep communities together that otherwise would have gone the way of Rhyolite.

When you gather your courage, you walk in to the mournful sound of clanging slot machines. While there are usually far fewer machines in these smaller facilities compared to the big Vegas casinos, the noise can seem even worse, since you can hear each individual machine blaring away. Inside, nearly all mini-casino originality is lost in a sea of the same 10 to 15 types of slot games that can be found from Washington state to Atlantic City, New Jersey. The slots are perpetually manned at all times by at least three elderly women in jogging suits either accented or monogrammed by a Ronco "Bedazzler." The next thing that hits you is the cold blast of arctic air conditioning, laced with stale cigarette smoke from the same three blue-hairs, who have been chain smoking for the past six hours while they "warm up" their row of machines, one of which is "almost ready to hit." After you get past the slot-grannies, their arthritic fingers stained black by handling quarters all day long, you get to the island bar, which, of course, has a dozen video poker games embedded in the bar, half of which are being played by burly mustachioed men with 10-gallon hats and half-full scotches on the rocks. Off to the side, to keep innocent children away from the evil, corrupting influence of gambling (er, sorry... "gaming"), there is a row of fight-oriented video games that allow the mullet-haircutted players to tear the heads and spinal columns out of their still-living video victims.

This is the exact same noontime scene played out in every mini-casino -- casinette? -- in the Silver State, bar none.

The casinette I entered at about noon that Thanksgiving day easily fit into this broad, sad category. However, there was also room for a little restaurant service on the other side of the island bar. I looked around, but I couldn't find any self-serve, cafeteria-style eats. Apparently it was all waiter service. Sigh! I knew this meant "The Look" would be coming along with lunch.



"So, how many?" asked the bored, heavy-lidded, blue-eyeshadowed, 17-year-old waitress.

"Just one," I said, bracing myself.

That's when I got The Look -- part skepticism, part surprise and mostly pity at the poor, poor soul who's eating all alone on Thanksgiving. "Um... just one?" she said, arching an eyebrow and turning her mouth into a small pout.

"Yes. One," I replied, a bit too testily.

"O-ka-a-ay..." she said under her breath, with a slight eye-roll, as if to say, "Suit yourself, loser."

As I sat down and immediately ordered something fast and basic to get out of there ASAP, I noticed a table across the room with about seven people crowded around it. They were dressed nicely -- men in sweaters, women in flower-print dresses -- but not casually. The food had already been served to them, and I could tell even from a distance that it was ... turkey ... stuffing ... mashed potatoes ... some kind of vague orange/yellow vegetative matter. They were obviously doing the turkey-day thing and they wanted to go out to a nice restaurant to save mom the trouble of cooking. This casinette was probably the best restaurant in town.

It was one of the most depressing sights I'd seen since Dan Quayle took the vice presidential oath of office. They all sort of sat there like lumpy gravy, making idle small talk, looking straight ahead most of the time, never smiling. I wanted to leave, but my burger came quickly, with the waitress giving me another pitiful Look as she placed it in front of me, saying, with raised, patronizing eyebrows, "Here you go... Happy Thanksgiving..." smiling bravely all the while.

I half-heartedly thanked her and proceeded to wolf the burger down. As I was finishing up, I glanced at the T.V. over the bar and saw that the Evil Dallas Cowboys were, of course, far ahead by halftime.

"Check, please!" ... Grrrr ...

"...I could feel the air getting warmer by the minute..."


Into the Abyss

"I'm down (I'm really down)
I'm down (down on the ground)
I'm down (I'm really down)
How can you laugh
When you know I'm down?"

Sated but annoyed by my final casino experience of the 20th century, I set off once again to the forbidding, beautiful wastes of Californ-y. Surely I'd find some solitude there, right? Surely the silly giving-of-thanks rituals had not found its way to this remote corner of the world, had it? I was beginning to have my doubts.

My spirits were raised by the time I crossed the California border. The state border also marks the Death Valley National Monument boundary, so all signs of civilization --billboards, factories, trailers, brothels --instantly shrunk to just a handful of basic directional road signs as I ascended the 4,300-foot Daylight Pass.

On the other side, a paradise beckoned. Stretching out for 60 miles to the southeast, the dry salt pan of the valley floor snaked around a series of alluvial fans that splayed out from the steep valley walls. To the northwest, I could begin to see a vast network of shifting sand dunes that had been swept up to towering ridges over the millennia. Across the whole vista, every color of the rainbow was represented in muted, wavy layers of rock. Across the valley, to the west, more ridges could be seen, rising higher, bluer and fainter, up to the 14,494-foot peak of Mt. Whitney -- the lower 48 state's highest peak less than 100 miles from the continent's lowest point.

As I drifted down the road over a particularly large and gently sloping alluvial fan, I could feel the air getting warmer by the minute, rising from the cool 50s at the pass to the pleasant mid-70s. Just a few months before, the thermometer on the valley floor was regularly topping 110 degrees, but on Thanksgiving Day it was like a gentle springtime afternoon. Every few miles, I passed a sign saying, "Radiator Water, 5 mi." I could barely suppress a smile.



"Sometimes I wanna take you down
Sometimes I wanna get you low
Brush your hair back from your eyes
Take you down, let the river flow"

By the time I hit Rte. 190, one of the main east-west routes through the valley, I passed the sign that marked mean sea level. The sun was starting to dip lower in the sky, and I knew that sunset would come quickly next to these huge mountains on either side, which seemed to rise straight up from the floor at a 90-degree angle. I figured I'd better step on it to get to Badwater -- the lowest point, at 282 feet below sea level -- before the light disappeared. Driving south, the road roughly followed the contour of the sea level line, as if we were driving along the edge of an invisible sea.

"I'd like to be under the sea
In an Octopus's garden with you"

Though I wanted to make better time, I couldn't help but make a few side stops. On the left, I took a leisurely detour on Artist's Drive, which took drivers past some of the most breathtaking colors and ornate formations in the whole park. On the right, I stopped at an almost comically forbidding place called the Devil's Golf Course, located right at the bottom of the valley. The "course" would truly be a golfer's nightmare, as the ground is made up of millions of cement-hard, razor-sharp, three-foot-high salt and calcium pinnacles -- not a good place to play any sport, really.

Back on the left again, I drove up a rather treacherous gravel road to a trail head, which led to a soaring natural bridge that was formed by countless flash floods that periodically roar down the side canyons. While the sky was brilliant and clear that afternoon, it still made me nervous that the dry streambed stretched the entire width of the narrow canyon, leaving no room for a riverbank. I must admit, I kept looking over my shoulder on the hike back down to the car.

The scenery was even more gorgeous than I had hoped for, and the rock arch was a total surprise to me, but there were still some troubling aspects about the afternoon. While the roads weren't particularly crowded, each viewpoint or point of interest on the way down had at least two or three cars stopped at it. Who were all of these people? Why the hell weren't they back home enjoying a nice meal with their families? Were there that many other geeks out there like me who were trying to escape the world? I was starting to get worried about what tonight would look like.

By about 3:30 p.m., when most people in the U.S. are just digging into their can-shaped cranberry sauce, I got to my ultimate goal: Badwater, U.S.A.

"Most Americans were back home dozing on the couch with their pants unbuttoned."


"I skipped the part about... love
It seemed so shallow and low
Low, low, low... low, low, low..."

At the Badwater parking lot, I sat motionless in my car as Michael Stipe's voice chanted the haunting lyrics to "Low," but it wasn't quite like I'd pictured it. Instead of entering this wonderful, meditative, existential tableau of salt, rock and sky, I was basically stuck in a crowd. Almost every parking space was full, including a bus load of middle-aged Japanese tourists who were posing every few minutes in groups of one or two, every one of whom was wearing the same blank expression on their faces: "I'm here."

I heard other people reading the placards off to their lazy passengers who didn't want to get out of their cars. Then I realized that I was hearing the words read in Japanese... in German... in French... in English with British accents. That's it! These weren't all American geeks, looking for a holiday from their holiday. Most Americans were back home dozing on the couch with their pants unbuttoned. It was all the rest of the world that was there, knowing that those stupid "ugly Americans" wouldn't be around to hog all the scenery for themselves.

The salt around the shrinking pond of water that gives the viewpoint its name was pounded flat and discolored an ugly gray by the constant trampling. Luckily, the National Monument posted very few restrictions on where you could walk on the valley floor; basically, they just said don't drive on it. After a 15-minute walk straight out into the crusty whiteness, I finally found a deserted spot that was also too far for the sounds of the United Nations parking lot to carry to. Looking back toward the eastern wall of the valley, I noticed that someone had marked in white paint where the mean sea level line was, nearly 300 feet up the sheer rock face. It really hammered home just how deep the whole valley really is. For about 30 minutes, it was just me, the honeycomb-like salt surface and the sky just standing there listening to each other's silence. Despite my earlier disappointments it was one of the best quiet moments I've ever experienced.



"Well, I been down so goddamn long
That it looks like up to me."

After Badwater, I slowly climbed back up to sea level as the sun was beginning to set. I could now see more cars on the road as they were retiring to their respective lodges. I was heading to my hotel in a tiny town called Stovepipe Wells. Like most of the wonderfully quirky, colorful place names in the West, it has a very pragmatic origin. The area had been a well-known route for prospectors in the late 1800s traveling through the valley between the Bullfrog mine in Nevada and Panamint Springs, Calif., to the southwest. Someone discovered a spring to the south of the huge sand dune field they had to cross. Lacking any surveying gear, one prospector marked the spring with an old piece of stovepipe. The rest is very obscure history.

Before heading to the hotel, I drove up a bit past it to see the dunes as the sun set. Again, their were no restrictions about climbing on the mountains of sand, so I gave myself a much needed workout climbing over the fat ridges, like Lawrence of Arabia, trying to get to my own personal dunescape. (Yes, it was crowded there, too!).

Reluctantly, as the dark crept in and the temperature started falling, I began to head to the hotel to check in. I had expected the air to be so dense at this low altitude that the views would look hazy. I was pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. As one park ranger told me, the lack of pollution (for the moment) and the high pressure of the air creates a lens effect, which magnifies distant objects, making them look closer than they really are. Because of this, it's very easy to see car headlights and taillights more than 100 miles away and think that they're just coming over the bend. As the sky darkened, I could start to sense that trick of the light -- many cars that seemed like they were parked motionless a couple miles down the road were actually dozens of miles away and moving at highway speed.

By about 7:30 p.m., I finally pulled into Stovepipe Wells and was surprised, yet again, to find not a sleepy little town with a dusty old motel, but a modestly sized, jam-packed, thriving resort, full of RVs, SUVs and BMWs. Apart from the campground, the only other buildings in Stovepipe Wells were a general store, a park headquarters information center and a gas station across the road. The next restaurant or services were about 30 miles away, and were run by a similar exclusive resort company. Still, however, I got a sign that I wasn't exactly in Kansas anymore -- as I pulled into the driveway, I passed a coyote just beyond the fence, staring at my car, its eyes ablaze in yellow reflections from the headlights before it ran off into the brush. Ow-ooo!

While I was checking in among the throng, I heard two hapless French tourists ask, in broken English, if there were any rooms available (I couldn't help thinking of Inspector Clouseau asking a hotel concierge for a "rheum" in "The Pink Panther.")

"Oh, no," the proprietor said, almost laughing. "We've been booked up for months. This is our busiest time of year."

Now she tells me... Figures...

"Oh, well," I thought. "I'll just wait for a couple hours to wait for the mess hall crowd to thin out, then I'll go and get some grub."

"Turkey, with stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy and two vegetables."


Following on the heels of my first-ever coyote sighting, I fell back into my room ('only to find Gideon's Bible' -- literally! The room was blessedly without a phone or a TV) and took a little nap until about 9:00. When I got up to get ready for dinner, I happened to catch a little movement on the wall out of the corner of my eye. I looked up and saw what I thought was a tiny, kind of funny-looking spider, no bigger the graphite tip of a pencil. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that it had little claws and that it had a tail that curved forward. Wow! Another first in the same night -- an actual scorpion in my room. I tried to pick it up with the edge of a pen, but I wound up just knocking it to the floor by accident behind the desk, hopelessly lost.

I thought about looking harder, but then I thought, "Hey, I'm a Scorpio. They wouldn't eat their own kind would they?"

Then I thought, "If that's Li'l Junior, will Mommy start to come looking for him?"

Time to eat, I concluded, quickly changing the subject, since I didn't want to go to the owner of a desert hotel and complain like a little wussy city-boy about a baby scorpion not much bigger than my eyelash.

I did get to the mess hall to see that the crowd had thinned out quite a bit. At this point, the fatigue of a long day's journey was starting to creep in. Suddenly, it didn't mean all that much that the place was packed tighter than rush hour traffic. I was starting to feel the glow of a trip well-planned and reasonably well-executed. Who cares if I failed to strike a blow against the Thanksgiving System of gluttony and guilt. At least I went somewhere I wanted to go and ate what I wanted to eat.

"Your table's ready, sir, right this way," said the pleasant, but obviously exhausted waitress, not a trace of The Look in her eyes.

As I sat down she immediately asked which meal I wanted. A bit puzzled, I said I needed more time, but then I looked down at the one-page, photocopied "Holiday Menu."

Oh, no.

"Since it's a holiday," she said sweetly, "we're short-staffed in the kitchen, so we only have two entrees to choose from tonight."

The choices?

Ham, with stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy and two vegetables...

... or ...

Turkey, with stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy and two vegetables.

Whimper... Did I mention the fact that I hate Thanksgiving?..

"Oh, what the hell," I said, smiling back at her. "Gimme the turkey."

I give up. And when you give up, you might as well give up all the way.

And could you give me a side of scorpion, too?





please email ducts with your comments.