Someone once described being in Paris as being an ant crawling across a magnificent work of art. Death Valley is like that, too, except that you drive. Early in November Robin and I devoted two days to the experience.
We came in from the north and turned west off U.S. 95 at Scotty's Junction, and drove the 23 miles to Grapevine Canyon and Scotty's Castle. What a fabulous place it is, and what a fabulous story behind it.
Walter Scott, known as "Death Valley Scotty," and a wealthy Chicago insurance magnate who bankrolled his action were a curious pair, but they complemented each other in the way that disparate souls sometimes do.
The homespun Scotty brought the urbane Albert Johnson to Death Valley with his wild tales of a hidden gold mine. Johnson built a beautifully designed and constructed home as a setting for the life they shared with their wives and with each other. That's the wonder of this place: It's not just a "castle," it's a beautiful and beguiling piece of architecture, a combination of art and engineering that cheers the heart and soothes the mind.
This exceptional treasure has been preserved and maintained as a part of Death Valley National Park; tours are given by accomplished guides who make the visit informative and memorable.
We stayed at the Furnace Creek Ranch, a large campus like a small college or an upscale military base - it's quite comfortable and surprisingly inexpensive - and the next morning we went to Zabriskie Point to watch the sun come up.
Here we had not only the transcendent experience of seeing the sun burst up out of the Funeral Mountains to the east and bathe the unearthly landscape in its light, but also a discouraging glimpse of human nature in action.
Waiting for magic
We arrived as the sky was beginning to brighten and joined a group of 12 or 15 people from around the world, some of them with cameras already on tripods, waiting for the magic to begin. And waiting and waiting. And just as the sun began to bulge up over the eastern horizon, a man and a woman walked up from the parking lot and then down a well-worn trail to set up their cameras and tripods directly in front of us. We looked at each other in wonder and amazement, and over our shoulders at the imminent sunrise, and back down at the intruders into the sublime view.
"Excuse me!" called a man whose large expensive camera was aimed at their backs, "You're standing in our way!" No response. "Excuse me! We've been waiting here an hour to take photographs and you're spoiling our pictures!" The interlopers looked back at us and replied, "There's nothing that says we can't be here. You should come down here too, there's plenty of room and it's a better photo."
"I drove for two days to get here for this sunrise," replied one of the photographers above. "You're ruining my photo!" The downhill couple did not respond, and the photographer, fuming with anger and frustration, strode down to confront them. Those of us above watched with interest and exchanged commentary in a variety of accents, French, German and unidentifiable as well as home-grown American, almost unanimously annoyed at the lack of consideration displayed below.
The envoy returned, having failed to budge the pair below, and the grumbling above became more voluble. One man actually threw a small dirt clod at them, but it fell far short.
As the sun seemed about to explode out of the eastern crags, the envoy again hurried downhill to remonstrate with the offenders, and when he hurried back up again he announced that they had agreed to move temporarily to allow the uphill photographers a few minutes for unobstructed photos.
They moved, and shutters clattered as the sun rose and the shadows to the west shrank behind the brilliant hills. Mayhem was averted, but the hard feelings remained, and everyone went away angry and upset from what had been anticipated as a transcendent experience.
In the heat of the day we took the Salt Creek hike in the valley floor, and I'm sorry to report that as the hours wore on and the sun was beating down, Robin left me to die along the trail. Her natural gait is a determined stride, mine a meandering stroll. A desert tragedy was narrowly averted by the fact that the trail is actually a carefully constructed boardwalk in a loop only half a mile long. Otherwise I'd have surely perished.
We visited several other of the spectacular landmarks in the park, including the brilliant Artist's Palette and Mosaic Canyon, a beguiling hike behind Stovepipe Wells, and found ourselves at the Furnace Creek Inn, about a mile south of the Ranch, at sundown. You can drive up to the front entrance, but it's more fun to park at the foot of the drive and enter by way of the long tunnel that delivers you to the elevator. Up you go from there, into the enchantingly designed and appointed hotel with its urbane bar and dining room. We had cocktails as the sun set behind the Panamint Range, far, far removed from the antagonism and ill will of sunrise.
We drove west out of Stovepipe Wells over the north end of the Panamints and then over the Inyo Range into Owens Valley where we picked up Highway 395 for the drive home along the eastern foot of the Sierra.
We had passed through Tonopah on our way to Death Valley and like Jim Butler we made a discovery. Whitney's Bookshelf is an unexpected treasure in Tonopah, which hasn't had a bookstore in nearly 30 years. This one has an inventory of thousands of used books, priced at $1 for a paperback and $2.50 for a hardback. Robin and I carried two heavy bags of them to the car.
I asked proprietor Larry Whitney what had prompted him to open a bookstore in Tonopah, and he surprised me with his answer. "I was retired," he said, "and looking for a place to settle. I wanted a place with no bookstore within 100 miles, no taxation of my retirement income, low cost of living, lots of DUI arrests and no AA meetings."
He pointed to a room at the back of the store. "We hold 15 AA meetings a week here now, we hold Al-anon meetings and we'll be starting (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings here soon, too."
He likes living in Tonopah, and clearly he has made the old town a better place.
• David W. Toll is the author of "The Complete Nevada Traveler" and offers a wide range of Nevada information and travel booking options at www.nevadatravel.net