The quality of desert light is not strained, it droppeth from the heavens. . . Mercy! I don’t mean to plagiarize the Bard but if he had walked our Mojave Desert, he might have felt “twice blessed” — at morning’s rosy-fingered dawn and when sunset torches ridge tops before night tosses its star-spangled blanket over all.
This is the sort of fanciful feeling that washes over me when I wake in the desert. But this particular morning was even more exalted. As I emerged from my tent in Butte Valley, a remote corner of Death Valley, I felt thrice blessed as if a revelation of biblical proportions were at hand.
It was early April in base camp at 4,000 feet and the air was calm, the temperature pleasantly warm, and the expansive view primal: mainly native forms, undulating cactus, yellow-flowering mesquite, and the parfait cream-and-mocha pattern of Striped Butte, our beacon, another 900-foot rise. A few dome tents — blue, green, orange — had sprouted amid the thorns, belonging to Desert Survivors. What a glorious sensation to be in this timeless landscape, ancient as creosote, greener than usual this wet year. Perhaps my fellow desert aficionados were having their own epiphanies.
All were desert-toughened enough to know how lucky we were to have these temperate conditions. There would be just one subterranean disturbance, a sad vibration, that would linger, in the knowledge that we were walking the footsteps of four German tourists who breathed their last here in July 1996: Egbert Rimkus, his eleven-year-old son Georg, Cornelia Meyer and her four-year-old son Max.
This not-so-long-ago incident, haunting though it was, did not prevent our fully embracing the adventure at hand. I had made many visits to Death Valley over the years, mostly camping in the front country. Penetrating the less-visited wilds was new and thrilling. From the start conditions were auspicious. Thirteen sturdy Desert Survivors had assembled Friday morning at Ashford Mine ruins in view of the snow-mantled Panamints.
The trip required durable, high-clearance vehicles. So we piled into four muscular Jeeps and our caravan proceeded along Warm Springs Canyon Road, a knobby ganglion of ruts, washboard, and molar-loosening bumps that could be hazardous in wet conditions. It would take nearly two hours to go the twenty-one miles to Butte Valley.
I rode with Bob Lyons who along with Nick Blake was leading our trip. Nick had assiduously made a reconnaissance visit to Butte weeks before. As we jostled along, Bob reminisced his earlier years of visiting the area and I got my first hint of his devil-may-care desert prowess. I imagined him surviving flash floods, quakes, woolly mammoths, sabertooths . . . Bob was truly a “Desert Solitaire.”
Along the Willow Springs Road there were sights to explore — gated mines with shuttered eyes to past commerce. Hard to believe that Louise Graham’s dilapidated compound — skeletal remains of her formerly thriving talc mining company, a crumbling homestead with a ghostly pool, diving board and a brown puddle on the bottom — had made her filthy rich.
More rewarding was the sea of nodding yellow flowers, which would be even denser two days later when we exited this road. We passed the first of many burros, a heart-wrenching sight. The creatures are a non-native, invasive species introduced by humans about one-hundred-fifty years ago. They destroy terrain but their removal generates controversy. Suffice it to say they are bad hombres — and mujeres.
Bob and I were the first to arrive in Butte. We stopped at the Geologist Cabin, which has got to be the most handsome backcountry refuge with its mortared stone frame and chimney. Inside, a fireplace, carved wood chairs and table, shelves stocked with emergency kits, including canned veggies, spam, water, wood, fuel, motor oil, lantern, batteries, and more, offer life-saving supplies or simple hospitality. Noting an American flag folded in a cubby, I thought of the flag the Germans had filched from the cabin on their unplanned death march. And of how they could have bivouacked here that torpid summer day, finding water just downhill at Anvil Spring. This was only one of their fatal mistakes.
Our initial plan was to camp around the cabin, but Bob and I noted a half-dozen steroid-plumped vehicles, which discouraged that. We all agreed this was a blessing as the cabin on the hill was fair game for strong wind. Thus, pitching camp at the foot of Striped Butte, we were protected, less exposed. Those human interlopers vanished without a trace and we saw no other homo sapiens the rest of the weekend.
We had spirits — tequila, scotch, bourbon, wine — and fine nourishment each evening. In addition to standard vegan, gluten- or dairy-free fare, Kurt from Yuba City cooked up hearty beef tacos. He gifted our palates further with a gallon of his ruby- rich home-pressed juice of pomegranate from his backyard trees. Nectar of the gods. I want Kurt and whoever contributed the chocolate cake on all my desert trips.
As we stood around getting loose and acquainted, sunset ignited a ridge, like clockwork turning it to shimmering gold. We were hardly snug in our tents or Jeeps when coyotes commenced their yipping, and occasionally a burro hee-hawed. I fell asleep wondering if their dissonant songs were the last tunes the hapless Germans had heard.
Saturday, after early breakfast, we crowded into a few Jeeps and bounced along an uneven grid of dirt roads that drunkenly lace the area. We parked and found the “trailhead,” an unmarked unvegetated patch that Nick and others located through their mobile topo maps.
It was a long full day of hiking down a sandy wash with little shade, the sun hammering persistently at times, but never unbearable. Aside from the broad open range, there were frequent splashes of wild flowers along the way. We had an endpoint in mind, Willow Springs, and we would get there.
But before that turnaround, there was an unsettling milepost. A compact bushy area we recognized from photos was where the Germans had abandoned their green 1996 Plymouth Voyager van, a rental that had aroused alarm when it was not returned. As we stood in silence at this otherwise unremarkable scrap of land, I felt my ire bubble up. How could parents have done this to their small children? I tried to push that sentiment down. It was not easy.
The in-depth story and tragic details of the four Germans can be found here, a long, overly detailed account.
It wasn’t until October of that same year, 1996, that the van was spotted from the air and located with three flat tires, but no trace of the four individuals. A dated German guidebook found in the van pointed to the adults’ probable next mistake: They started hiking east — in July! I’m not sure the exact date the four were eventually presumed dead but it wasn’t until 2009 that some human bones were located by Tom Mahoud, a search and rescue man, and shown to belong to Egbert. The children’s remains have never been found.
Understandably, some of us found this story too unbearably tragic. We trained our focus on natural wonders at hand. It was after all a banner year for wildflowers. I spotted, to name a few: desert dandelion, gravel ghost, desert star, yerba santa, Bigelow’s tickseed, coreopsis, desert trumpet, brown-eyed primrose, and lots of deep purple phacelia. There were scudding lizards, morphing caterpillars and their mature kin, butterflies. And of course, there were burros to mar an otherwise perfect tableau.
It was about four hours into our hike when we pushed on steeply uphill, following Nick’s GPS coordinates. Behold, no mirage, but a genuine copse of thick willow with coveted shade and stone seats to sit upon for lunch. We heard the spring rushing furiously within its green cage and the sound alone refreshed us. If only the Germans had passed here, I thought. Even that July when temperatures topped out at 125 degrees plus, there might have been a life-saving trickle. Chris, who was familiar with in-depth reports on the Germans’ disappearance, theorized that Egbert may have stowed Cornelia and the two children, Max and Georg, at Willow Springs as he plodded on for help. This vicinity still attracts searchers for bones. The fragments presumed to be Cornelia’s, were never definitively identified.
On an upbeat note, my favorite wild flower, the persimmon-hued globe mallow, proliferated in this area. What a little paradise of an oasis. We lingered long. On our way back, I picked up some bones, bleached and ashen. They belonged to an animal, perhaps a burro. It occurred to me that corpses in the desert can vanish as thoroughly as those at sea. Chewed, gnawed, nibbled, feasted upon by native beasts; desiccated, churned in hostile elements, blown to oblivion; blood to rust, bones to dust, flesh to flakes. Fast tracked to exactly where we are all headed.
Morbid thoughts aside, it was a fabulous hiking day and we were all content as we dragged our spent bones to camp looking forward to our commissary and happy hour. A kangaroo rat reared his head at dusk as a contingent discussed driving out the next day by way of Mengel Pass. The road is a trove of ruts, rocks, slippery gravel, and famous for its proximity to where the Manson family had holed up. No thanks, I thought, seeing the topo’s steepness. I’d be happy to return the rattling way we entered. (I later heard about their adventure — that they had to get out of vehicles to lift boulders out of their way. But they said the spectacular views were worth it.)
On Sunday morning, tireless ones set out after breakfast to scale Striped Butte. A few of us preferred to stay in camp, do yoga, watch the climbers zigzag up, and listen raptly to Bob Lyons tell of his first foray into desert — a juvenile playing hooky down El Paso way. His was a truancy that, apparently, led to his rough-hewn success in these challenging wilds.
In the end, I let go of my anger toward the deceased parents. I applauded their good intentions to expose children to a legendary wilderness they had read about and had traveled thousands of miles to see and didn’t want to miss. Their mistakes were forgivable, had to be.
Hadn’t the desert long ago drawn me near, a sort of personal Gethsemane. In the words of ancient Zen monk, Wuzhun Shifan, the desert aided in my transformation to “an uncontrived free wayfarer . . . [who] can enjoy the great cessation, great rest, and great bliss.” A thorny relationship in the early nineties had led me to this contemplative landscape. An unvarnished scape where everything is exposed and where I could respect how things are able survive harsh conditions. In Anza Borrego I learned with awe about a tiny mouse that lives many moons on one sip of water. Desert has been the perfect stage for a lesson in impermanence and cessation of grasping. How fleeting and sudden the moment when light, heat, and moisture synchronize their clocks just right and a Persian carpet bleeds across the desert floor. It withers and passes into air just as suddenly.
After Nick dropped me at my car on Sunday evening, I headed to Furnace Creek to revisit some past memories. In 1999, while the Germans were still mysteriously missing, I watched the 50th annual Fortyniner Encampment roll into Death Valley’s Furnace Creek. With Belgian draft horses and Conestoga wagons, a retro celebration was under way with hootenanny, fiddle music, and salutes to veterans and prayers to God. By any measure, it was a hoot, cavemannish, and further proof that the desert supports a diversity of cultures vegetable, mineral, and animal.
I camped under tamarisk at Texas Springs away from the overly “gentrified” central oasis. About 4 a.m. that morning, I was staring though my tent’s skylight, wishing retrospectively that the Germans’ suffering had been short, their demise swift, when a huge meteor, phosphorescent blue and blinding, floodlit camp and fell to earth with a soundless flash. I jumped up and yelled,“Did you see that?!” No one answered, they were sound asleep. It was the revelation — that not just mercy, rain, and light droppeth to the earth below, but great balls of fire too.
The above story appears in the bi-annual Journal of Desert Survivors, Fall 2019, editor & communications director Nicholas Blake, firstname.lastname@example.org. The group welcomes new members—www.desertsurvivors.org.