travelog 12

The Lost Paradise

We wanted to take some sun and warmth before our return to cold Switzerland. That's why we decided to drive into Death Valley. This time we travelled on bad tracks and back roads and not on the normal paved roads as we did 8 years ago with our rented camper. We reach Saline Valley on a bad, very bumpy and sometimes also washed-out track. You can only reach this valley over high passes. It's a basin with a salton sea, sand dunes and hot springs. It's (still) a well-kept secret, a small paradise fighting a lost cause; test area for the newest American military aircraft; temporary native country to crazy and freaked-out people. From far away you can see the big palms and the green oasis in the middle of the otherwise desolate desert. The route goes on and on. The washboard shakes our small apartment topsy-turvy.

But when we reach finally the "promised land", we get a reception that we will never forget: as soon as I, Julia, go out of our Unimog, I'm surrounded by a bunch of naked or half-naked men (in a t-shirt and nothing below) who want to know everything about our vehicle. Some of them think that they have seen us some years ago in Mexico, others crawl under the vehicle to check all the technical details - it was priceless! We just get rid of them by promising not to leave the next day.

A little bit away from all the others and between mesquite trees we found a nice campsite with a view of the surrounding mountains and the palm oasis. Then we took our first bath in the hot pools that frees us perfectly from the dust and the dirt of the tracks. With a daytime average tenperature of about 86 F the water is 104 F very hot but after the bath the air seems to be a lot cooler.

Nobody can really remember who was the first person on site. This place was apparently used by a prospector named Lucky Rich who was washing his ore from his mine. He lived here in his trailer together with countless chickens and a cock. Soon there were other people, they built a small pond, planted palms and took care of the hot springs. The fish pond was born in 1976. In this pool you can see fat gold fishes that feed from the dish-water and bread crumbs. From time to time there come big Blue Herons and Egrets for a short visit and they try to catch the fish. Attracted by the water are also big red dragonflies, small blue ones and also a very shy bird, the mud hen. For many years, a camp host has lived in this palm oasis who takes care of everything: broken machines, flat tires, car breakdowns, distribution of the necessary works, emergency radio - to make a long story short, he's responsible for the "organization" of the colourful community. Lizard Lee, aforementioned camp host, normally stays here all year long. Even in the oppressive summer heat when the temperatures climb far over 120 F. He loves the desert and the stifling heat. To cool down he takes at best a bath in a hot pool which he allows to "cool" down in some days to 86 F. However, from fall to spring the area is full of bustling activity. Most of the people know each other for years, and it's easy to make friends - especially when you drive such a strange vehicle as we do!

We stay in the area of the Lower Warm Springs. The Palm Springs more to the east are a place for loners. Besides "our" hot pool there is a morning sun pool with a lot of sun in the early morning where you don't freeze when you go out of the warm water. The main pool lies hidden under big Washingtonia Palms, mesquite trees and Arrowweed (named after the Indians who made arrows out of the wood). This pool is shaded all over the day and holds up to 15 people. There is a bench all round. Outside you can cool down your body a little bit on the rocks and the kitschy water inlet is made of white rock crystals (from this area) and other colorful jewels. A little bit away is a small bath with a shower where you never have to worry about the hot water.

There is also a small romantic pool made only for two persons. The whole area is a small oasis, a green paradise in the middle of the desert and when you come from the outside through the green wall into the shade of the palms, you'll be taken to another world. The green lawn invites you to take a bath in the sun, some of the people practise Tai Chi, others play poker, read a book, sell their handmade jewelery or just chat with their neighbor. At night the lawn is fenced so that the wild burros cannot eat all the green. The only thing that disturbs this paradise (that's just our opinion) are the daily test flights from the airbase nearby.

During these low-level flights the most recent warplanes thunder at an altitude of 100-300 feet over the oasis. Or you can see air shows where several planes overfly the valley together. First of all the noise bothers us; however the Americans let themselves be carried away. On one hand they are very proud of their warplanes and here they can see always the newest planes, but on the other hand the noise also bothers them. The major argument for the flights is that the National Park Service cannot commercialize the hot springs as real attractions as long as the valley is used as a test area for the US Airforce. That's why the hot springs can be kept as they are today.

From 1995 on, since the Saline Valley has been added to the Death Valley National Park, some changes were introduced. Some of the tracks have been closed to public access, a landing strip has been closed, dogs and pets must be kept on leash all the time (a regulation which makes especially the pet owners angry) and the worst of all: one is only permitted to stay for a maximum of 30 days per year!

But that would need a tougher control and the valley is far away from the administrative center of the National Park - therefore it's rare that a ranger can be seen in this remote area. Amazingly the clothing regulations have not been changed since then: if you arrive at the oasis you pass a big sign telling "clothing optional area" and as soon as you enter the palm circle you realize that no one here wears clothes. For clothes it is too hot anyway and we adopt this custom very fast. We are repeatedly amazed anyhow to see the different characters:

a naked woman riding her bicycle "wearing" her water bottle; a naked man below his rainbow-colored umbrella, walking through the desert; naked people "wearing" a rucksack; naked Bird Bob "wearing" his pair of field glasses; a naked woman only wearing a french maids apron with frills, washing the dirty dishes; naked people playing poker; naked workers with broom and bucket...

In the evening you meet the others at the big campfire, Piano Dan plays and plonks away on his newly renovated piano, the beer cans pile up, the dogs sleep under the shrubs and finally it cools down a little bit. Or Killer invites the whole group for one of his famous shows.

This time everybody wends his way to the upper Palm Springs. They transport the piano on a jeep to the set, the actresses try the different lingerie and the high heels. The bystanders pull out their photo and video cameras. In the middle of the California desert against the background of the Inyo Mountains with a beautiful sunset and a hexagonal hot pool, we are witnesses of the most comical and crazy scenery we've ever seen before. Three girls in despicable lace lingerie and bikinis of silver chains form a group on and around the old piano, stretch around the piano player and Killer races with his video camera from one end to the other and tries to get the best shot. Everybody has a good time, the scenery is perfect, somewhere far away in the valley it rains, dark clouds stick to the mountains, the sun sinks very fast below the peaks and the area is bathed in wonderful pale colors.

Unfortunately we have to leave this paradise after one week but we will come again and explore the area a little bit better. We escape before the weekend when sometimes up to 150 cars surround one spring. The people invite us to join them on Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas for a big party with grilled turkey, chicken and everything one's heart desires! The next time we will also make our contribution to this place. The secret is, that this place is so wonderful because of all the small and often invisible works that people perform. This oasis could survive for so long only with the big efforts of the whole community.

October 1998

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen