California

Desert Pilgrims

The wild characters drawn to Joshua Tree and Death Valley

by Colin Dickey

On a late spring evening, I am walking through Joshua Tree National Park with Ken Layne, founder and editor of the Desert Oracle—a publication and radio broadcast devoted to the landscape Layne loves—to talk about the ghosts and visionaries who inhabit the Southern California desert. As the sun sets against the yuccas, we talk about why the desert seems to always attract hermits, artists, and strange visionaries.

“Any place that is remote because it has not been hospitable to the cultivation of the land is going to have the potential,” says Layne, for some kind of wonder, mysticism or cult weirdness. It’s not just the isolation of the desert, though; the proximity to civilization is also key. You need that exchange of ideas, of fresh blood going into and coming out of the wilds. “The most remote wildernesses that are still relatively close to where the action is—that’s going to be it,” Layne says. And there’s perhaps no place on earth more like this than the national parks of Southern California.

Cut off from development by both climate and protected status, Joshua Tree and Death Valley serve as counterpoints to the nearby metropolises of Los Angeles and Las Vegas— the eerie sense of endless isolation belies the closeness of these cities. Every year, millions of pilgrims make the trek to these deserts. In 2018, Joshua Tree saw 2.9 million visitors, a 3 percent increase over the previous year, while Death Valley had 1.7 million visitors in 2018, up from 1.3 million in 2017.

Increased traffic perpetually threatens the delicate balance here. As Layne and I walked along the dirt paths of Joshua Tree, he showed me how an ATV tire tread that veered just a few inches off a path can break the crust of the desert, starting a slow but inevitable process of erosion. To a newcomer, the desert appears invincible and immutable—surely the thing that can kill you so dispassionately cannot itself be killed. But its vulnerability is always right there, below the surface.

The deserts of Southern California are dreaming places where one comes face to face with the sublime desolation of nature. Just inside the southern entrance of Death Valley National Park is Zabriskie Point, a mesa overlooking a spread of alluvial fans that gave Michelangelo Antonioni the name of his 1970 cult film. (“In that portion of the film,” Antonioni once explained, “I needed to surround the characters with a lunar-type landscape, to suggest solitude.”) Other films, including Spartacus and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, were also filmed here, and in 1975, philosopher Michel Foucault dropped LSD in the desert for the first time, an experience that he claimed profoundly changed his life and his thinking.

Here, on the outskirts of these national deserts, is where you find the dreamers.

Look closely and you’ll see that the desert is dotted with strange outposts forged by sun-blasted visionaries. Near the Salton Sea is Salvation Mountain, a glorious work of folk art by Leonard Knight, who moved out here to devote his life to painting an elaborate Technicolor love letter to Jesus. Further out in Joshua Tree, you’ll find a series of boulders with gnomic sayings carved on them by John Samuelson (“GOD MADE MAN BUT HENRY FORD PUT WHEELS UNDER ‘EM”), who lived here before killing two men in a bar fight and being declared insane. But of all the strange outposts in these deserts, none are quite like the Amargosa Opera House. Sitting at the southeastern tip of Death Valley National Park, it embodies all of the possibilities, the strangeness, the fragility of this arid dreamland.

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Death Valley Junction began life as a company town for the Pacific Coast Borax Company. At one point, the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad connected to a branch line out to the borax deposits of the company’s Lila C. Mine in nearby Ryan; the borax was brought back to Death Valley Junction, where it was ground and roasted 24 hours a day. A 1920 Harper’s piece by Zane Gray spoke of “intolerable” conditions in which men could last only six months before they “killed themselves outright or impaired their strength, and when they were gone or rendered useless others were found to take their places.” The article embarrassed the company enough that, in 1924, it built a civic center for its workers, including sleeping quarters, a gymnasium and billiard hall, an ice cream parlor and a meeting hall that was known as Corkhill Hall. But the mine closed down three years later, and the Pacific Coast Borax Company left Death Valley Junction, turning its civic center into a hotel. After the Tonopah and Tidewater removed its rails, though, the visitors dried up and Death Valley Junction—no longer a junction—became a ghost town.

It was in this sorry state when, in 1967, Marta Becket discovered it. Born in New York City in 1924, Becket had trained as a ballet dancer from an early age and, by her teens, had already found success working at Radio City Music Hall and on Broadway. She performed in Showboat, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and other productions, and by the 1960s, she was touring the country. It was a difficult life; she later wrote how she’d started to feel “unused,” struggling to find audiences for an art that had fallen out of fashion in the 1960s.

During a vacation in Death Valley National Park, she and her husband got a flat tire; they managed to get the car to Death Valley Junction, and while her husband set about repairing the tire, Marta wandered over to the ruins of Corkhill Hall. “There was a hole in the back door, through which I tried to peer inside,” she later recalled. “A few sunbeams pierced the dark interior. Finally my eyes were able to make out a small stage with faded calico curtains hanging from a track. Debris was strewn all over the warped floor boards and several rows of wooden benches faced the stage. Some old roller skates lay up front, and directly at the foot of the sunbeam was a doll’s head with its blue glass eyes staring back at me. Pockets of dust and sand provided a backdrop for kangaroo rats and desert spiders.”

But in that debris, Becket saw the possibilities of a life: “As I peered through the tiny hole, I had the distinct feeling that I was looking at the other half of myself. The building seemed to be saying, ‘Take me … Do something with me … I offer you life.’” Within a year, she had returned. She rented out the entire town for $45 a month and transformed the dilapidated civic center into a hotel, and Corkhill Hall into a stage for her work— the Amargosa Opera House.

Becket began performing her one-woman show there in early 1968. Attendance was sparse; sometimes, she’d perform to just a handful of people, and sometimes, she’d perform to an empty room. “To stay ready to perform, I must dance whether there is an audience or not,” she wrote in her memoir. “The important thing for me now was to do my thing. Whether anything would come of it was not important.” Three nights a week, she put on her performances, wearing costumes she’d designed and sewn herself, in front of backdrops she’d painted herself.

In a bid to make the theater slightly less lonely, particularly for those days when she danced alone, Becket spent four years painting an elaborate trompe l’oeil panorama covering the walls of the theater. The walls depict a sixteenth century Spanish court, complete with box seats where a king and queen are surrounded by nobles, clergy, peasants, bullfighters, courtesans and cats. A series of vignettes are woven into the paintings, adding drama, including one of a young man drop- ping a love letter to his beloved. Above it all, the ceiling is covered in billowy white clouds and plump cherubs. Even when no living patrons took in her show, these painted figures kept her company, night after night.

She described her new home as having an “invisible wall” that seemed to surround it, “impenetrable, creating a retreat from today.” Tourists, locals and curious onlookers came and went, but Becket’s devotion to her practice remained steadfast. If there was any kind of invisible force field, it was generated by her single-minded focus on her work and her refusal to be shaped by anyone else.

Photo credit: Giuseppe Milo

The Amargosa Opera House doesn’t shout at you like Samuelson’s rocks or Knight’s mountain; Marta Becket was never one for proselytizing. To enter her theater feels very much as though you are entering her mind—you are surrounded by a living work of art that is both her body in motion and the murals on the walls. It feels like stepping into someone’s dream.

If it all sounds like something out of a David Lynch movie, it is: the director used the hotel’s exteriors for the final sequence in his 1997 film Lost Highway. But focusing just on the surreal and haunting nature of the place doesn’t do justice to the sweetness and generosity of it—the gift of performance, and the impact one artist can have on the next generation.

Want to read the rest of this essay? Buy our US National Parks guide here.

CONTRIBUTOR

Colin Dickey

Colin Dickey is the author of three books of nonfiction, including, most recently, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. His next book, The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained, is forthcoming in Summer of 2020.

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