Following the Gold-Paved Road in Death Valley

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By Eric Rorer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 13, 2003

We ran into only one person during our nine-day trek across Death Valley National Park, and somehow we managed to scare her off.

As soon as she drove up, I could see she was confused, and I couldn't blame her. It must have been strange coming upon the five of us -- four men, one woman -- out there in the desert. She looked to be in her early sixties and was in an air-conditioned SUV. We were sitting in the direct, inescapable sun, the temperature over 90 and climbing.

Few people venture into the park's backcountry, and the vast majority who do travel as she was -- by car. Indeed, one of the park's special qualities is that some of its remotest sections -- places where you can go for days, even weeks, without seeing another soul -- are only six hours from Los Angeles or four hours from Las Vegas. Still, I felt certain we could explain why we were out there on foot.

At first the conversation seemed to go well. She asked us if we were okay. We were. She asked us what we were doing, and we told her we were backpacking. Then she asked us where we were going.

We answered as a group, and we answered forcefully, perhaps a little too forcefully, with the word that had become our rallying cry during this long desert hike.

"Bullfrog!"

She smiled a worried smile and powered her window up. No wish of good luck. No goodbye. Just the window closing and the car accelerating. She was gone.

There was a time when the word "bullfrog" caused heart rates to rise and palms to sweat throughout California, Nevada and points beyond. It heralded one of America's last true gold rushes, based on a 1904 strike that sent tens of thousands of fortune seekers scurrying into a corner of the California-Nevada desert so remote that it remains, even a century later, one of our country's most pristine wildernesses.

As the story goes, when legendary Death Valley prospector Frank "Shorty" Harris discovered the strike -- just east of the California border near what is now Beatty, Nev. -- he picked up a rock that resembled a bullfrog and decided to name the strike accordingly. As news of the bonanza spread, gold hunters began pouring in.

To reach the Bullfrog mine, these would-be aristocrats had two choices. They could take the train from Reno to Tonopah, Nev., and travel about 110 miles over land from there, or they could take the train to Keeler, Calif., about a 75-mile trek to the mine. But the latter route -- our eventual route -- involved crossing five mountain ranges, totaling almost 18,000 feet of elevation gain.

"I looked at a map [from 1909] and it showed a well-established trail system from Keeler to Death Valley," said Bob Ellis, a 63-year-old retired systems analyst from Berkeley, Calif. "Those trails don't show up on contemporary maps, but I said to myself, 'Why not connect the dots?' "

Which is exactly what we were doing out there in the sweltering sun, watching the woman in the SUV fade into the horizon. Ellis was leading the trip for a San Francisco hiking group called the Desert Survivors, driving a support van and rendezvousing with us at 48-hour intervals to deliver water. He had plotted the route on a map for us, which we followed using GPS units and compasses.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company


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