washingtonpost.com
Following the Gold-Paved Road in Death Valley

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.

Desert Survivor trips are decidedly informal affairs, publicized primarily through the group's newsletter and Web site. Trekkers bring their own gear and food, and provide their own transportation to and from the trail head. The trips are generally open to anybody in good physical condition, although Ellis had taken a bit more care in screening participants for this adventure. Even though we had a generous nine days to cover the 75 miles, the heat and the elevation gain and loss meant for a strenuous trek.

With the SUV gone, we set out again, heading east across the floor of Saline Valley, flanked by the 10,000-foot peaks of the Inyo Mountains in the west and the Last Chance Mountains rising 4,000 feet above us in the east. It was Day 3 of the trip.

"This is nifty stuff," said Tom Budlong, a 67-year-old retired weapons system engineer from Los Angeles, who was unflappable in the 90-degree heat. Even on this, our hottest day, he wore jeans, heavy boots and a flannel shirt. "You find this old trail out here and you think probably nobody alive has been on it before you, because who walks through here? Nobody. But here it is, just waiting for you."

We walked until the trail disappeared in a boulder-strewn canyon and rock-hopped our way to the entrance of a collapsed mine, where we took refuge in a sliver of shade and ate lunch. Afterward, we found the trail again, as it wound its way along the spine of a ridge.

Our campsite for the night was just south of Racetrack Valley, one of the park's marquee attractions. The valley gets its name from rocks that move mysteriously, almost as if they're racing each other across the dry lake bed on the valley floor. The exact cause of the movement remains unknown.

Ellis met us at the campsite and gave us a pep talk. "You know how in high school sports you can earn letters?" he asked, pacing back and forth. "Well, you all are doing the same thing, and now you've all got a B, a U and two L's. So you've got the bull, but you still don't have the frog."

Our route the next morning took us across the Racetrack playa. Although it's a major park attraction, we had it all to ourselves. The sun was low in the sky, so our shadows were long across the cracked, hard clay. The air was absolutely still, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

Trouble came late in the day, when we ran into a series of dry waterfalls that required some serious scrambling. Maybe too serious: Craig Deutsche, a 63-year-old retired high school teacher, and Spencer Berman, a 47-year-old mechanical engineer, decided it would be easier to climb out of the canyon and traverse an adjacent ridge to the top of the pass. When the rest of us arrived at the crest, they were nowhere to be seen.

We set up camp and surveyed the ridges looking for our friends. Finally, just as the sun was setting, I saw them, two specks on a far-off ridge. I shouted so they'd know where we were and waited for a response, knowing that both men were exhausted and certainly in low spirits. A long silence ensued.

Then I heard Berman's voice, strong and defiant, wafting through the twilight. "Bullfrog!"

By the following evening, we were 5,400 vertical feet (a 10-mile hike) into Death Valley itself. We camped at the top of an alluvial fan with the valley spread before us, rimmed by peaks topping out at 11,000 feet. As we ate dinner, we soaked in the view -- the red mountains, the pink sky, the white saline of the valley floor -- and talked about what it would have been like to be a real 1905 Bullfrogger, marveling at their courage and toughness.

The next morning, we began the final push. Those last three days were the easiest of the trip, highlighted by the limestone narrows of Fall Canyon, gorgeously sculpted by floods that come about once every three years.

When we reached the mine site around noon on Day 9, all we found was a closed shaft, a lonely dirt road and a beautiful view south into the Amargosa Valley. We weren't surprised.

The story of what happened in the Bullfrog area after Harris's discovery is not different from other tales of boom and bust in the American West, except in scale. In only two years, Rhyolite -- a city of 12,000 people -- rose up out of the desert just a few miles east of the mine, complete with a train station, three-story bank and schoolhouse. By all accounts, its founders expected the town to thrive at least 100 years.

Ravaged by difficulties in extracting the ore and by the 1907 downturn in the stock market, Rhyolite was a bust by 1908. All that remains today is a jumble of ruins.

While some people made money off the Bullfrog strike, most did not, including Harris, who sold off his interest in a drunken stupor. As we took off our packs for the final time, just below the mine, I reflected on what it would have been like to have made the trek from Keeler in 1905, full of so much anticipation, and then to have come away with nothing. I wondered if any of those original Bullfroggers looked at it all as a grand adventure and felt lucky just to have traveled through such an astonishing landscape.

Perhaps I was being naive, even arrogant, imposing contemporary values and aesthetics on a different time. But as Ellis pulled ice-cold beer from a cooler and we toasted the completion of our quest, I flashed back to a conversation we'd had a few nights before. Sitting in a circle, we'd each answered the question, "What would you do if there were still gold in the Bullfrog mine and you were suddenly wealthy beyond your wildest dreams?"

While our answers varied in some respects -- some would contribute to political causes, others spoke of starting magazines or making films -- there was one thing we all agreed on. We would take a lot more trips, just like this one.

Eric Rorer is a freelance writer and photographer based in San Francisco.

Details: Hiking Death Valley

GETTING THERE: To reach Death Valley National Park in eastern California, along the border of Nevada, fly from D.C. to Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Spring fares start at about $210 round trip on America West and Continental for Vegas and about $235 for L.A. The park is a half-day's drive from either city. Las Vegas is the closer of the two, and the drive is much easier, simply because you don't have to fight so much traffic getting out of town.

Rent a car with either high clearance or four-wheel drive. You can reach many remote areas of the park by passenger car, but a more rugged vehicle will give you more options.

WHEN TO GO: The best time to visit is early spring or early fall. While Death Valley is known for its brutal summer heat, it can also be bitterly cold in winter. Elevations in the park range from 282 feet (the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere) to 11,049 feet, and snow is common at the higher altitudes.

HIKING: The best way to experience the park is to camp, especially in the backcountry, outside of designated campgrounds. Desert Survivors, a San Francisco Bay Area hiking group, offers an extensive selection of guided trips, ranging from car camping to strenuous backpacking adventures. Participants provide their own transportation, food and gear, and must be a member of the group ($20 a year). Otherwise, trip fees are $10. Anyone may join, but for the more arduous treks, contact the trip leader to make sure it's right for you. Details: 510-769-1706, www.desert-survivors.org.

By far the best hiking guide for Death Valley is "Hiking Death Valley" (Michel Digonnet, $17.95) by Michel Digonnet: It is well-written, comprehensive and covers even the remotest areas of the park.

WHERE TO STAY: If you don't feel like roughing it, there are a number of lodging options within the park. Furnace Creek Inn (rates from $160 to $365 a night, depending on season and room) features elegant rooms and the park's best dining. Nearby Furnace Creek Ranch (from $85 to $159) offers affordable and clean motel accommodations. Details for both: 760-786-2345, www.furnacecreekresort.com.

For a more rustic experience, try the Panamint Springs Resort (775-482-7680, www.deathvalley.com; rates from $70 for a single to $150 for a cottage), which features motel and camping accommodations (no in-room phones or TVs) and a small restaurant. Stovepipe Wells Village (760-786-2387, www.stovepipewells.com) also offers motel accommodations and RV hookups; rates from $82 to $103.

INFORMATION: Death Valley National Park, 760-786-3200, www.nps.gov/deva.

-- Eric Rorer

© 2003 The Washington Post Company