Untrammeled! Celebrating 50 Years of American Wilderness

A podcast and radio series that celebrates American wilderness

Episode 3: Death Valley Wilderness

3/2/2015 - download audio - subscribe
Running time 27:18 minutes, MP3 format (128 kbps), 44.1 kHz stereo, 37,507,332 bytes (37.5 MB).


CHARLIE CALLAGAN: It's one of the few places--I think--in the country, and one of the few wilderness areas, where you can have absolute silence.

STEVE SERGEANT: Welcome to "Untrammeled."

[Theme Music]

STEVE SERGEANT: I'm your host, Steve Sergeant.

STEVE SERGEANT: Imagine a landscape dressed in trees, dressed in grass, dressed in water. Now what if you could pull that all away? What would remain? It's a deceptively vast and empty-seeming landscape. And much of it is unexplored.

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: I don't think anybody has seen all of Death Valley. I mean, for example, just last month we were out hiking in the Panamint Valley on the east side, and we discovered a population of Teddy bear cholla that had never been found before.

STEVE SERGEANT: Death Valley is a protected three-million acre portion of the Mohave Desert, two hours outside of Las Vegas. When producer Rachel Hopkin first saw Death Valley, she was underwhelmed.

RACHEL HOPKIN: I'm embarrassed that when I first came here I just thought everything was one dull black-brown color.

STEVE SERGEANT: It's nothing like the rolling hills of England where she hales from. But things changed on her second visit.

RACHEL HOPKIN: Now I can see it's pink, it's black, it's gray, it's blue, it's purple, . . . it's beige, it's ochre . . .

STEVE SERGEANT: Rachel found herself becoming captivated with this mysterious place.

BARBARA DURHAM: So are we ready? Or we wanna go up there? Or you wanna do it here?

RACHEL HOPKIN: No. Let's go up there.


RACHEL HOPKIN: It's just before dawn in Death Valley and I've met with Barbara Durham of the Tembisha Shoshone tribe to see the sun rise over this incredible place. We walk to the top of Zabriskie Point.

BARBARA DURHAM: My people have lived here since before written time, and we're the people of Tembisha.

RACHEL HOPKIN: What does Tembisha mean?

BARBARA DURHAM: It refers to the red rock which is found below the Golden Canyon. There is a layer there and the people used that for when they needed power or if they were sick. If they were praying, they would use that on their face like a rouge. And it would protect them.

RACHEL HOPKIN: It's a quarter past six. A faint light is breaking over the landscape, and we can now see the strange dune-like hills just below Zabriskie Point.

BARBARA DURHAM: Here Tembisha is the name that we call here: Death Valley. And we prefer to call it Tembisha rather than Death Valley. 'Cause it's not--it's not dead. To us--you know--things are alive here. There is medicinal plants here, and you know, there's water. There's a lot of animals here, too. And um, it's not dead. It's very much alive.

RACHEL HOPKIN: So there's quite a few people here coming to watch the dawn. Is this--is this quite--the spot?

BARBARA DURHAM: Yes it is. And we always see a lot of tourists climbing up here in the middle of the summer--in the middle of the afternoon. We're going, “look at those people. They're crazy. You know it's like one twenty.”

RACHEL HOPKIN: It sure isn't a hundred and twenty this morning.

BARBARA DURHAM: No it's not.

RACHEL HOPKIN: Barbara and I are huddling in jackets that aren't quite warm enough to withstand this biting wind. It's a far cry from 134 degrees, the hottest temperature ever recorded on earth, noted here in 1913. Barbara's people once lived in several sites across Death Valley. Today there's only one small Tembisha village left. Two dozen or so residents work in partnership with the Park Service to protect Death Valley. Barbara is the tribe's historic preservation officer. There are many areas of the park that hold deep meaning for the tribe. These are not divulged for fear of desecration, but Barbara is able to tell me about some of the tribe's ongoing traditions.

BARBARA DURHAM: We continue to go to the mountains in like September. Go pick our pine nuts. That's one tradition we keep up. And we go up into the Panamint Mountains, or if there isn't any there, then we go into the mountains in Nevada where we have land there. And yeah, everybody's always on a hunt for pine nuts come September. We send scouts out. And then we also pick the mesquite beans which are in the valley. They are honey mesquite. And they're really sweet. That's what Death Valley is know for--having honey mesquite beans, and that was one commodity that our people used.

RACHEL HOPKIN: As we've been talking, the sky has turned an incandescent blue. And the Panamint Mountains across the valley are now bathed in a pinkish glow from the rising sun.

BARBARA DURHAM: You know when we pray, we always, you know, thank the creator for allowing us a new day. And to our elders--when the sun comes up it lights our path. The world goes in a circle, and that's the way we believe. Everything goes in a circle. It's a new day. We should be blessed that we're here, that the Creator gave us a new day.

RACHEL HOPKIN: The sun is making its way over the horizon. We, the 30 or so people who have gathered to see the dawn, are indeed blessed.

[Music transitions to water fountain sound.]

ABBY WINES: Death Valley is the driest place in North America, averaging only two inches of rain per year.

RACHEL HOPKIN: That's Park Ranger, Abby Wines.

ABBY WINES: It's a problem for backpackers because there isn't much water in the desert and they have to carry all their water supply with them. But the reason that Albert Johnson built right here in Grapevine Canyon is because of the spring. A mile further up the canyon it produces two hundred gallons of water per minute.

RACHEL HOPKIN: I've traveled about sixty miles to Grapevine Canyon in the north of Death Valley to a settlement far more recent than that of the Tambisha Shoshone. Scotty's Castle, named after the Twentieth Century con man who tricked the well-to-do into investing into his nonexistent gold mine. Among his targets, Albert Johnson, a prominent businessman from Chicago. But Johnson decided to make a trip out west to inspect the mine. He uncovered the fraud, but fell in love with the land. After camping here each winter for many years, Johnson created this mansion. It includes that unlikely spring-fed patio fountain we just heard, an imposing clock tower, and a music room, complete with a pipe organ.

[Pipe organ music.]

RACHEL HOPKIN: Abby showed me around the castle, and as we went through the organ pipe room, I noticed a number of mousetraps.

ABBY WINES: We have a lot of mouse and rat traps at Scotty's Castle. Myself and my staff, we check one hundred and eight of them daily. But the problem is, that when they come in, they're looking for nesting material, which would be the furnishings. So what we bait them with--what you see in these snap traps--are cotton balls. No scent, just nesting material, because that's what they're after. It's ironic that we have a problem with rodents in the Castle, but the same species of animals anywhere else inside this national park are protected. There is a conflict between our attempts to preserve the natural species and the natural ecosystems and the national park service's attempts to protect the cultural heritage of this historic district.

RACHEL HOPKIN: Do you know why Albert Johnson, and his wife, in fact, were drawn to this place? 'Cause it's so different from what they must've been used to.

ABBY WINES: One answer to that question is carved into the ceiling of one of the rooms in the castle. It's in Spanish to match the architectural style, but translated, it says, "In the far desert there is peace and tranquility. One feels the force of the sun and the mysterious silence of the night."

RACHEL HOPKIN: Scotty's Castle may not be wilderness, but it can bring people to the wilderness. The first time I saw Death Valley, I found it brown, flat, and unappealing. The second time, though, I came specifically to visit the castle. As I learned of the Johnson's love of the desert, then drove home through the park at sunset, it cast its spell on me. The silence and the space--they were like nothing I had experienced before.

[Footsteps in sand.]

RACHEL HOPKIN: It's not at all silent when I meet with Charlie Calligan. Death Valley's wilderness coordinator. The wind is kicking up dust clouds all across the valley floor. A chance comment from Charlie gives me a renewed sense of the expanse of this place.

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: It's actually fun to walk up here to do this because it's a location I've never been before.

RACHEL HOPKIN: Oh gosh, I didn't realize there would be--how long have you been working here?

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: Twenty-four years.

RACHEL HOPKIN: And there are still parts you don't--haven't been in?

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: Oh, yes. And that's one of the great things about the wilderness here in Death Valley, is it's one of the few places, I think, in the country, and one of the few wilderness areas, where you can still experience that type of solitude--where no one else is around, where you can have absolute silence. And of course, today we've got a little bit of breeze, we're not having--maybe silence--but the outside sounds of the world are pretty much cut off from us.

RACHEL HOPKIN: We're walking over an alluvial fan--a sediment bed scattered with an amazingly colorful array of rocks and pebbles. Charlie tells me that the vast majority of the people who travel through Death Valley do so in their cars.

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: It's somewhere up in the high ninety percentile. They may go on a short walk here or there, but those who really fall in love with Death Valley, begin to come back and explore deeper. We probably have more folks exploring the remote back country dirt roads, and camping out on those dirt roads, than we do actually have backpackers.

RACHEL HOPKIN: We crouch down in a small alluvial canyon, and I mention that I've read that people driving off road is a problem. Has he heard about that? I ask.

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: Oh, have I heard of people driving off road! It's one of my pet peeves and concerns because, as the wilderness coordinator, here in Death Valley the wilderness comes pretty close to the road, so it doesn't take much for a vehicle going off road to where they're actually trespassing into the wilderness. And believe me, I've raked out thousands of feet of vehicle tracks.

RACHEL HOPKIN: And just--people who are not thinking like this--why does it matter that people are driving off roads?

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: It leaves a scar on the environment. You know, some two or three vehicles driving off road can almost make an area seem like there was a road there, and the scar can last for a long time. It detracts from the wilderness quality of it. Also, of course, people travel over delicate plants, break the plants--I mean, they struggle hard enough to survive here as it is, much less being run over by a several ton vehicle.

RACHEL HOPKIN: The talk of plants reminds me of what Barbara Durham said about Death Valley being a living place.

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: Death Valley certainly has wildlife, but it often comes out at night. Think about it, as it's beginning to warm up--the summer months--you're not going to see a kangaroo rat during the day. They're going to come out at night. You're not going to see a kit fox during the day. They're going to come out at night.

RACHEL HOPKIN: What about the pupfish?

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: Pupfish. Isn't that an amazing thought? Fish in the desert! There's actually five different species of pupfish in Death Valley. Most live in isolated springs and pools out in the wilderness, but the-uh--pupfish that most people see manage to survive the heat of the summer to retreating back to the deeper pools, and then move down into the area around the boardwalk, and visitors get to see them in the mating season. My understanding is the Tembisha Shoshone did harvest the pupfish as a food source. And we will see killdeer and birds wandering through and harvesting the fish today, too.

RACHEL HOPKIN: He strikes me as being supremely at ease in the valley that's been his home for nearly a quarter century. He radiates a sense of well-being here.

RACHEL HOPKIN: What is it in you that makes you able to live in this strange, beautiful, vast place for such a long time?

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: Wow! Now that is a hard question. What is it that allows me to live here? I think ever since I served three years in the military--I served a year in Vietnam--and I think I came back very confused and distraught about the conditions in my country and the war we were involved in at the time, and I think the wilderness provided me with some peace, solitude, and some foundation to really build a life. I find I am most alive when I'm in the wilderness. I'm most alive when I'm exploring something new or climbing a mountain.

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: It's an amazingly huge park. And I don't think anybody has seen all of Death Valley. I mean, for example, just last month we were out hiking in the Panamint Valley on the east side, and we discovered a population of Teddy bear cholla that had never been found before.

RACHEL HOPKIN: A Teddy bear cholla is a kind of cactus.

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: They were individual plants that were eight to nine feet tall. It's been there all that time, but nobody had reported it. Somebody may have seen it. Somebody may have been looking for gold and could care less about cactus, but, you know, we were in a very remote area of the park that very few people go to. But you don't have to be a huge hiker to experience and fall in love with the wilderness here because its vastness is on display to everybody. All you have to do is park your car and walk for a bit, and you can experience that silence. You can experience that vastness, and I think that's something everybody can experience.

RACHEL HOPKIN: With that in mind, can you recommend somewhere that I can go where I can experience the wilderness?

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: There are so many places here in Death Valley, but one of my favorite places over in the Grapevine Mountains--it's fairly easy to access, and there's a path over around to Fall Canyon. I mean, it is one of my favorites because the narrows in there are generally spectacular.

RACHEL HOPKIN: I've taken Charlie's advice and come to explore Fall Canyon and its narrows, which is where the rocks on each side of the canyon grow closer and closer together. He says it's three miles to the dry fall, and I'm making my way alone along a rough path.

[Footsteps in sand]

RACHEL HOPKIN: Hi. Do you know where the Fall Canyon is?

PATRICK: What's that?


PATRICK: I think this is the Fall Canyon, right?

RACHEL HOPKIN: This is. I wasn't sure if it was--I thought I might have missed it, but you think it's still on?

PATRICK: I think so. That's what I started out trying to find. So, let's look here.

[Map crinkling.]

PATRICK: So that's the road we--


[Narration begins over background discussion of the map.]

RACHEL HOPKIN: Since this is wilderness, there aren't any neat little signs pointing out the route. I'm notoriously bad at following directions, and it hasn't taken me long to think I've gone the wrong way.


RACHEL HOPKIN: So as I'm just beginning to walk into the base of the canyon, there's a little bit of shade, and there are these beautiful yellow flowers here. The flowers look like yellow daisies and then there are ones that have a bell-shaped head--pale yellow. They're absolutely gorgeous. It's not a very steep incline here, but I'm feeling kind of out of breath, and I think it's because the ground is so soft. So for every step forward you take, you kind of slip back hard--a bit like walking through sand, although this is more like just plain gravel.


RACHEL HOPKIN: Oh, so this is lovely because the canyon is beginning to wind around, so I can no longer see back to the Panamint Mountains. All I can see is the canyon that I'm in. And these huge rocks, either side of it, that are striated, and kind of blue and cream, with these patches of green plants around, and these beautiful bell, yellow flowers--pale yellow flowers. I must find out what those are. Gosh! I should've gotten in training.

RACHEL HOPKIN: The canyon keeps closing up, tantalizingly suggesting its end is nigh, then opening out again, and after awhile, I catch up with the hiker I met earlier.

RACHEL HOPKIN: How much further do you think it is?

PATRICK: Uh, [indistinct] . . . four and a half miles.

RACHEL HOPKIN: Uh--this said three miles.

PATRICK: Three miles. Alright, so--

RACHEL HOPKIN: It's difficult to judge on this surface, though because it's so difficult to walk on. It makes you feel like you're walking double what your are.

PATRICK: Yeah, yeah. And then you've got to kind of zigzag on it. I bet you it's only--I think less than a mile.

RACHEL HOPKIN: We stop and drink some water. He tells me his name is Patrick. He's been visiting Las Vegas for a conference and has taken the day out to come to Death Valley. He points out some strange logs scattered along the canyon, which I'd not previously noticed.

PATRICK: [Indistinct.]

RACHEL HOPKIN: Yeah, what is it?

PATRICK: That's--you know--where's that from? That's huge!

RACHEL HOPKIN: So, we're looking at--a pile of what looks like logs and roots, with a very big log on top, and we can't work out where on earth it could be coming from. It's just got this lovely kind of . . .

PATRICK: Just . . .

RACHEL HOPKIN: . . . woody kind of scented smell. It's like, uh . . . . Ah! it's so sweet!

PATRICK: But that's probably an eight-foot tall log.

RACHEL HOPKIN: Yeah. In a place with no trees.

PATRICK: With no trees.

RACHEL HOPKIN: Interesting.


RACHEL HOPKIN: I think most people who go hiking know that the experience can sometimes lead to serendipitous, if fleeting, friendships. Patrick and I fall into step as we continue up the canyon. It's seeming a lot longer than the three miles I'd been expecting.

PATRICK: It's getting narrower. That's a good sign.

RACHEL HOPKIN: Huh. It got narrower before, and then it opened out again!


RACHEL HOPKIN: Actually, you can hear how it's narrowing because of the slight echo here.

[Echoing footsteps]

RACHEL HOPKIN: There it is! We're at the dry fall! I still think that was a lot more than three miles! We're at the dry fall with a little bird who's just ahead of us. And the little bird, I hope, thinks . . . hmm. I wonder if it's looking for water. So it's finally narrowed, and we have a dry fall and a bird, just flying out of it. [bird calls]

RACHEL HOPKIN: Dark has fallen in Death Valley. I'm here in that mysterious silence of the night, that attracted the Johnsons and so many others before me. It's three o’clock in the morning, and I've come to meet Dan Duriscoe. He works with the National Park Service's Night Skies program. A ten-year-old initiative, born of the understanding that the unspoiled night sky is also something that needs preserving.

DAN DURISCOE: Most people come to the parks--they think of the scenery as daytime scenery, but there's a growing contingent, actually, of visitors who come to see the night sky because it's one of the few places left in the world where there's virtually no interference from cities and towns. And we've seen some good accomplishments in terms of--right over there--Stovepipe Wells. If we were here about five years ago, that would be just brilliantly lit up with unshielded lights and right now, what are we? About two and a half--three miles from it, and it's really no brighter than any of the stars. And that was our objective, to try and make this all look like it should, even at night.

RACHEL HOPKIN: I'm almost losing my balance because I can't orient myself. It's so dark, in fact, that I can't even see Dan's face. And Dan and his team have put in measures to make sure it stays that way, as he explains to me.

DAN DURISCOE: You need the lights to be fully shielded. That's the most important. So that no part of them points into the sky. And then the color is important. They used a little bit too blue a color here. It's still bright, but the intensity is so low that it's not bad.

RACHEL HOPKIN: It's the isolation and the immensity of Death Valley that makes the night here so special. Though there's a faint glow from Las Vegas to the southeast, most of the sky is unsullied by light pollution from outside. I asked Dan if he can recognize everything we're seeing so clearly above us.

DAN DURISCOE: I know the sky pretty well. The brightest thing in the sky right now is Mars. It's over there. It's kind of reddish looking. It's next to a bright star there, which is--it's like--uh--in Virgo.

RACHEL HOPKIN: Where's Venus?

DAN DURISCOE: Venus is not quite up yet.

RACHEL HOPKIN: Dan and I spend quite some time saying nothing--just looking up and taking it all in.

DAN DURISCOE: The thing about wilderness--you can get really much more spiritual, I guess, about it, at night. You're not faced with all these stimulus from the land in daytime. It's a much more contemplative time, so it kind of completes the circle, you know. You've got the intellectual, the sensual, and the physical, and the spiritual. And there's nothing more spiritual than being, like, just lying flat on your back on a night like this, and just sort of imagine yourself hurtling through space on this earth. And you can really get the idea--this is it--this is where we live. And it's a terrific, terrific opportunity here in Death Valley for those kinds of experiences. We talk about wilderness as being where man is just a visitor. I think that's true in the sense of today's world, but it wasn't always that way. The earth was--used to be one big wilderness, and we were living in it.

DAN DURISCOE: Oh, that might be Venus right there.

RACHEL HOPKIN: Oh, my goodness!

DAN DURISCOE: That's about the right brightness for Venus.

RACHEL HOPKIN: It's very bright. Even in that glow.

DAN DURISCOE: That's one thing we say about--what we say--well, what's the standard for wilderness in terms of the night sky? It's like we don't want any object that you can see in the land to be brighter than Venus because Venus is the brightest natural object other than the moon. So, that's kind of my unofficial standard. If there's something that's brighter than that, it's not wild. It's something you would not expect. It's trammeled, shall we say?

RACHEL HOPKIN: It's beautiful!

DAN DURISCOE: Yeah. It is. And it's starting to--a little bit of crack of dawn here--happening. So you've got a really nice day for the sunrise here.

[Theme Music]

STEVE SERGEANT: You've been listening to Untrammeled. That was Producer Rachel Hopkin in the Death Valley Wilderness of California.

STEVE SERGEANT: Like Rachel, you can explore a little bit of Death Valley's wilderness by taking a moderate hike on a well-known trail. But if you're drawn to go a bit deeper, into the less-explored back-country, park officials recommend checking in with them about your plans and getting their advice. To learn more, visit wilderness50th.org/untrammeled.

[Theme music]

STEVE SERGEANT: The show is part of the celebration of the fiftieth year of the American Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act of 1964 preserves public lands for the American people to use and enjoy--places where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.

STEVE SERGEANT: Untrammeled is produced by Effable Communications, in collaboration with AudioLuxe Media.

STEVE SERGEANT: The AudioLuxe team includes: Mia Lobel, Ellison Libiran, Olivia Swilley, Nick Lamb, and Chloe Davidson. Our Associate Senior Producer is Stacy Bond. Composer Danny Clay produced our theme music. I'm the Executive Producer and your host, Steve Sergeant. Thank you for listening.

MIA LOBEL: Untrammeled is made possible with funds provided by the University of Montana's Wilderness Institute, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, the Society for Wilderness Stewardship, and the Wilderness50 project.

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