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Giants, UFOs, ghosts in the world’s most desolate place

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Heather and Heide at Death Valley National Park.
Fertile Ground Compost Service
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This is Part III of IV of Red Dirt Report's Heide Brandes' travels to and from California in September. Click here to read Part II.

Death Valley earns its name, but is filled with beautiful mysteries as well

OKLAHOMA CITY – The rain came from a single black cloud in the otherwise blue, featureless sky as we entered Death Valley.

Rain may be too strong of a word, though; it was more like the cloud was dripping sweat on us, erratic little splatters of wetness that left dusty tiny puddles on the windshield of Birdy, the nabbed car.

After leaving the primordial mountains and forests of Yosemite National Park, Heather and I ventured east in the new-to-me Honda, aiming to make the Grand Canyon by day’s end. That route brought us to one of the harshest, most inhospitable and dangerous places in the world.

Death Valley earns its sinister moniker. Though more mountainous than I expected, it is as dry as a dead coyote’s fang. In its red, dark black and scruffy brown valleys and hills lurk ghosts, legends of unidentified flying objects, gibbering creatures that stalk and kill.

Death Valley was given its forbidding name by a group of pioneers who wandered into the valley and found themselves lost in the winter of 1849-1850. Even though only one of their members died, they all assumed that this valley would be their grave.

Eventually, the party was rescued by two of their members, and as they climbed out of the valley over the Panamint Mountains, one of the men turned, looked back, and said "Goodbye, Death Valley." This name, and the story of The Lost '49ers, have become part of Death Valley’s history.

As we drove the winding roads through the park, peering out at sand dunes and borax flats, I couldn’t help but wonder how these pioneers found water. How did they survive months in this horrid and harsh landscape? How did they not succumb to the despair they must have felt?

I have my problems, and they hitched a ride on our road trip like an annoying backseat driver. I fretted over finances, especially since “nabbing” the car carried a price tag of about $2,800 altogether. There goes the November trip to Iceland.

I was bruised by the cunning and startling attentions of men, those who crept up and bit, then ran off with a bloody mouthful of skin while howling, “Let’s just keep it fun, OK?”

I worried about my sick mother. I plotted ways to make it through the winter when clients stop calling. Holy crap, I haven’t even paid any of my quarterly taxes this year!!!

Yet, I did have water, food and air conditioning in the car, which is more than our poor pioneers had. Still, despite their dire situation, they survived. They escaped. That alone gives me the motivation to keep pushing.

What’s money and men problems compared to dying of thirst, wild animal attacks and blistering heat?

Legends of Death Valley

During our drive through Death Valley, we stopped at the 5,400 foot scenic overlook, Dante’s View. Peering over the edge, the valley basin shows itself as the hottest, driest and lowest elevation in North America. The beauty of the view of purple mountains and the pure white salt of the valley floor is misleading.

Like most mysterious places, Death Valley has its local legends as well. One old mystery describes an underground city that became Paihute Indian legend. The city apparently was first described more than 60 years ago, in Bourke Lee's book, "Death Valley Men."

The book recounts that tale of two Death Valley men identified as Bill and Jack who said they'd discovered the remains of an ancient civilization after falling through the bottom of an old mine shaft near Wingate Pass.

They described an underground cavern that they followed for 20 miles into the bowels of the Panamint Mountains. They claimed to have discovered preserved mummies in what appeared to be an underground city.

One of the strangest tales on the mysteries of Death Valley took the world by storm in the summer of 1947 when Howard E. Hill of Los Angeles shared the extravagant tale of Dr. F. Bruce Russell, a retired physician, who in 1931 claimed to have discovered a series of complex tunnels deep below Death Valley.

What he found in those tunnels, Hill said, were the remains of giants. According to the story told to Hill by Russell, the caves contained the skeletons of several gigantic men averaging nine feet in height.

In Hill’s own words, told to a rapt audience at the Los Angeles Transportation Club, he described giants clothed in jackets and trousers made from material that resembled gray sheepskin, but obviously were not from an animal known in the modern world. A ritual hall held the remnants of ancient saber-tooth tigers and mammoths.

UFOs may have also visited this desolate land. In 1949, a Bakersfield, Calif., newspaper reported that two prospectors saw a UFO crash in the desert. They said two little humanoid creatures escaped from the wreckage and ran across the desert.

No attempt to rebuke this story has been known to have been made. Additionally, there has been no indication that the wreckage or the creatures have ever been located or removed.

The Armargosa Hotel in Death Valley is full of ghosts, according to legend. In particular, room 34 is the favorite of a ghost named Mary, while other guests and workers have reported weird smells, the sound of babies crying and full apparitions.

Many paranormal teams have captured ghostly photos, videos and EVPs from this haunted location. The un-renovated section of Armargosa Hotel is called "Spooky Hallow,” which includes several individual spirits with distinct personalities."Spooky Hallow" is known for its murders, suicides and hangings.

So, if you enter into a place with “death” as part of its name, you not only have to worry about dehydration and starvation, but also about giants, little green men and some pretty frisky ghosts, too.

Plan your trip

I wasn’t paying attention as we trudged our poor car along Highway 190 in Death Valley. A sign warned us to turn off the air conditioning in the car to avoid overheating the engine, but since Birdy has a tiny engine anyway, we had to leave the AC off in order for her to struggle up the high mountain roads.

Suddenly, the car in front of me screeched to a stop, and being a bit distracted, I swerved and slammed on my brakes just as a scraggly, sand-colored coyote trotted across the road. Heather squealed, asking me what the hell I was doing as the coyote posed for a moment to contemplate our two vehicles.

With barely a swish of its tail, it ran behind us, crossed the road again and disappeared into the desert to share a laugh with its coyote buddies about almost causing a wreck.

Beyond a few stalwart lizards, it was the only sign of life we saw in Death Valley.

If you only have a limited amount of time in this amazing and desolate place, venture down the most popular drive – the Badwater Road. If you visit Badwater and take Artist's Drive on the return trip back to Highway 190, it should take about 1½ hours round-trip. Add a stop at Zabriskie Point and the sand dunes to round out your visit.

The Furnace Creek Visitor Center is also worth a stop. For one, a large sign displays the day’s temperature on the valley floor, which at that point is 190 feet below sea level. At 5:15 p.m. on the day we tackled Death Valley, the temperature had dropped to 118 degrees. The air felt like a furnace, giving hints as to how the visitor center got its name.

The world record, highest air temperature of 134°F was recorded here on July 10, 1913 at Furnace Creek Ranch.

The visitor center is located in the Furnace Creek resort area on California Highway 190, and a 20-minute park film is shown throughout the day. During the winter season, November to April, rangers present a wide variety of walks, talks and slide presentations about Death Valley's cultural and natural history. Hiking in the summer and early fall is strongly discouraged – 118 degree heat is no joke, folks!

We did make the Grand Canyon that night, again scoring the last available place to sleep. Though a grueling drive, the trip from the Grand Canyon back to Oklahoma City was even worse.

But no trip across the American west is complete without seeing the awesome sight of one of the world’s largest and most extensive canyons. And, as we discovered the next day, it’s even better by bicycle.

Photos by Red Dirt Report's Heide Brandes.

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About the Author

Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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