In the far desert there is peace and tranquility. One feels the force of the sun and the mysterious silence of the night. Under these high mountains lies buried much treasure, and great will be the recompense for those who will search for it with their labor."
When these sentences were carved in Spanish 40-odd years ago on a redwood ceiling at Scotty's Castle in Death Valley, Calif., the distinguishing feature of that locality was its signal lack of hospitality. Even today the climate of Death Valley, where summer temperatures reach 130°, is a challenge. The valley, which lies some 80 miles west of Las Vegas, is still rich in ores and in the chemical that gave it its first fame, but the old prospectors and their mules have all but disappeared. Today Death Valley, of all places, has become a fashionable winter resort.
From November through March it turns into a haven for people who stream in by bus, car and plane to get away from winter and winter's sports. Activities are centered at Furnace Creek Inn, a luxurious hotel nestling on a cream-colored mountain, with balconies facing the vast salt flat and the snow-capped Panamint mountains. Its rooms, priced at $27 a night for one, all meals included, need no air conditioning. Daytime temperatures during the season are a comfortable 65 to 75°. But at night, when temperatures outside drop some 30°, the rooms are heated. Ties and jackets are compulsory for men in the elegant dining room but not in the Oasis bar, which has walls of sparkling borax crystals and a hand-carved redwood ceiling.
A terraced garden with manicured lawns, bustling brooks, tall date palms, pomegranate trees and graceful tamarisks descends from the inn, as unreal as a mirage in contrast to the surrounding dust. An 80-by-20-foot swimming pool is fed by the warm water of Furnace Creek.
The inn was built in 1926 on the road from Death Valley Junction to Lone Pine by Pacific Coast Borax, then a British company that wanted to offer its visiting executives accommodations as luxurious as any they could find at home. Twelve years ago it was leased by the company whose restaurants and dining cars made the Harvey Girls famous all along the route of the Santa Fe Railroad.
One mile from the inn, almost on the edge of the salt crust, is another Fred Harvey property, a onetime cattle ranch that is now a motel. Some of its cabins, which can be had for $10 a night, were brought all the way from Boulder Dam, where they had served as accommodations for the workers. A magnificent date-palm orchard adjoins its lush green nine-hole golf course, and golfers find an extra hazard in the coyotes that chase mud hens into its water holes.
The ranch itself is a museum. A 20-mule-team wagon train, which consists of two ore wagons and a water wagon, recalls harrowing trips in the 1880s when borax was hauled 165 miles from Death Valley to Mojave in 10 days. There is also a shiny black locomotive of the "Death Valley railroad" that was used to transport borate from the mines at Ryan to Death Valley Junction from 1914 to 1928.
Horses and mules can be rented for guided desert rides, and the horses are quite used to carrying beautiful ladies attired in colorful stretch pants and knee-high golden boots. People don't go to Death Valley to fight the elements these days. Why do people go there at all? There are other places to play golf or ride horses. Yet in Death Valley there are sights that must rate among the great wonders on earth. There are mysterious canyons in the layer-cake mountains and a natural bridge, as solemn and intimidating as a Gothic cathedral. A road stretches into the salt flat to Devil's Golf Course, where mud, gravel and salt have formed a strange broken crust. Two inches of salty water called "Bad Water," because the mules of the early prospectors would not drink it, cover the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 280 feet below sea level. A small pool mirrors the distant peaks of the Panamints.
And then there is the fantastic combination of Moorish, Spanish, Italian and California mission architecture known as Scotty's Castle, which was built by an over-generous millionaire for an unpredictable prospector to whom he had taken a fancy. Now the property of a foundation, it boasts hand-carved beams and hand-wrought iron chandeliers made by craftsmen from Austria. Its furniture and rugs came mostly from Italy and Spain. A warm-water spring leads right into the living room, where it turns into a fountain amidst a grotto of jasper stones.
The castle was built in 1924 at a cost of some $2 million by Chicagoan Albert M. Johnson as a gift for his friend Walter Perry Scott, whose ability to find and squander fortunes almost overnight and to tell tall tales about them afterward apparently enchanted the city man. Whether Johnson believed Scotty's promise that the pure desert air would cure his failing health or whether he thought he might repay the gift out of the gold Scotty swore was lurking in the ground nearby will never be known. Whatever the reason, the castle still stands (Scotty died 13 years ago) to prove to anyone interested that one can find fun as well as a fortune in the once forbidding soil of Death Valley.